The Uniqeness of the late Dan Jenkins
World Golf Hall of Fame member Dan Jenkins, one of just three writers in the hall, died on Thursday, March 7, at age 89. He would have reached 90 this December.
Being short of any milestone number was un-Jenkins-like, from the roughly 230 majors he attended to the majority of the WGHOF members he’d known. Born just a few months after Arnold Palmer and Peter Thomson, who also have passed away in recent years, he’s another WGHOF member who has died in the last several months, along with Gene Littler and George H.W. Bush.
Jenkins was a Texas-born writer who spanned golf from rudimentary tour days of vagabond pros trying to scratch out a living while also holding a club pro job to the megabucks players today who really have little understanding of how the old days were. Dan always made the point that golf heritage was foreign to today’s tour players. Their pampered lifestyle today dulls the senses to realizing the rough and tumble way it used to be to earn a living as a tournament player. Today’s players use clubs and balls the players of Jenkins’ early days could have only dreamed about, along with all the money.
As a former day-to-day staffer with Golf Digest for more than 30 years, I spent many of them working with Dan on his columns and long pieces for the magazine. His association with the magazine began in May 1956 when he wrote—what else—a humor story on golf glossary terms. My estimate is he wrote at least 250 articles. It was my job to get his monthly column ready, finding out what he was writing about and securing a piece of art to illustrate his copy. Once I had the story in layout form, there wasn’t much else to do but make sure it was “put to bed” properly with factchecking and proofreading. He was one writer you didn’t fuss with on his text, but then you didn’t have to. He knew how long to write to fit his words in a column, including art. On longer reads, we would plan how much runover type there was “let it run” to avoid making any cuts. When we did need to get his input on cuts and such, like all the great writers, he provided an efficient snip or tweak and we were done. However, the lack of chances to call him up to talk about a column didn’t give me much opportunity to just have short chit-chats about the golf scene, and that was a shame for me.
I was not as close to him as our main editors who assigned him stories, but I did get with him one time for a round of golf, I believe around the time of the 1994 U.S. Amateur in Ponte Vedra, the first of Tiger Woods’ three in a row. While I enjoyed the round, I stunk so badly on the golf course, it is not a memorable moment in my career. I had a great time discussing the game with Dan during the round and lunch, but my poor play bugged the heck out of me and I felt embarrassed to play so badly. Dan, however, wasn’t hung up about my game and was probably surprised I was so upset about it and was a gracious host.
Like other golf-writing greats I was associated with during my managing editor work at Golf Digest—Charles Price, Peter Dobereiner, especially—I now look back and see I should have overcome my innate shyness and spoken more at length with them about the game and the writing process. For sure I could have picked up much advice from Dan about how his unique style, which no one had seen before or since, was created and developed. His style, in both fiction and reporting, was most often described as irreverent, satirical and stinging…but I found it to be factual and correct. Anyone who got zinged by Dan, as far as I saw it, deserved it. Many figures in golf took themselves way too seriously and inflated their own importance. Dan brought them down to the correct size. Where criticism was leveled at his writing was his general practice of favoring the iconic name or legend over the common golfer who had a brief shining moment as a major champion. Jenkins loved it when the marquee player won, since it would generate greater readership. He did not get as enthused when the lesser-known player won who would not be of any great consequence in the history books and ruined a great storyline. He was sometimes asked by relatives to go gently on their family member. But Dan hoped people could approach his writing from the right perspective to know how to read his meaning.
Writers tried to imitate Dan Jenkins, but there was no one like him and never will be.