Dermot Gilleece: 'Farewell to a remarkable writer and generous colleague'
A bobblehead of Dan Jenkins has been sitting on a shelf in my office for almost 10 years. In the light of his recent passing, it shall remain there as an ongoing reminder of a remarkable golf writer and generous colleague.
I came upon the memento while covering the US Open at Bethpage Black in 2009, when it marked both his 200th appearance at a Major championship and the launch of his latest book, Jenkins at the Majors. When he died earlier this month at the grand age of 89, that Major count had grown to 232, which will never be approached, much less equalled.
The splendid scope of Jenkins' writing, which earned him a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, was outlined in an elegant tribute by his Golf Digest colleague, Tom Callahan. Inevitably, it included references to other American sports writing giants, including John Lardner, who crafted, in Jenkins' view, the finest of all opening paragraphs.
It read: "Stanley Ketchel [the middleweight boxing champion] was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast." Callahan observed: "'That, in a sentence," Dan always said, "is the great American novel.' And it had to be 'lady.'"
Callahan further detailed how Jenkins and a colleague co-wrote a screenplay for Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop II, only to be fired because it was too funny. "You know," the producer was told, "that's kind of what we were shooting for."
"You don't have to be funny," the man replied. "Eddie be funny." For the next 20 years, added Callahan, the co-conspirators looked across rooms at each other, mouthed "Eddie be funny" and howled.
Though he was undoubtedly witty, Jenkins could also be acerbic, with the capacity to infuriate, which was my reaction to a particular piece he wrote some years ago. Typically imaginative, it was his list of the 'Nine worst golfers who ever won a Major championship'.
At a time when Pádraig Harrington had yet to become Ireland's second Major winner, it was grossly unfair, in my view, that his noxious nine included Fred Daly (1947 Open). Mind you, I later decided that the entire exercise was simply a device for a swipe at Jack Fleck, who had the effrontery to deprive Ben Hogan of a record fifth US Open crown at the Olympic Club, San Francisco, in 1955.
Jenkins had a life-long devotion to his fellow Texan. In fact when I sought an interview from him in 1998 for a series I was compiling on magic moments in golf, he responded: "You know it's going to be about Hogan." And I was delighted to hang on his every word.
"Ben Hogan seemed to fill my golfing life from an early age," he said. "At this stage, a year after his death , I feel especially privileged to have known the man as a fellow Texan; to have spoken regularly with him and to have played golf with him."
He went on: "I was fascinated by everything about him - and with good reason. There was the time in 1951 when I was a sophomore at college and working in my spare time at writing golf for the Fort Worth Press. And I would describe myself as a pretty useful golfer, playing off scratch.
"On one of my regular visits to Colonial, I went into the golf shop and asked: 'Where is he?' I didn't have to say more; I knew he'd be out on the golf course somewhere, practising. They immediately understood. 'He's on 11,' I was told. So I grabbed a cart and went out to see him."
Hogan was hitting balls to a caddie, little knock-down three-irons from 152 yards. Jenkins waited for him to light a cigarette, before approaching. "Ben," he asked, "what the hell was that all about?" The reply was that he would need the shot at Oakland Hills, where the upcoming US Open was being played.
"Be prepared, was his motto," Jenkins added. "And he always told me that he never wanted a scorecard that told him distances. 'I don't want to know that it's 157 yards,' he would say. 'I may want to hit a two iron, if that's what the shot feels like.' That's how he played.
"I know it sounds like a crazy simplification but, in essence, he would play the course as he felt it needed to be played and shoot the score he thought he needed to shoot. And if somebody was good enough to beat him, he would just shake his head and remark, 'They must have played wonderfully.'
"I played him 30 or 40 times and beat him once, with a partner. We made every putt we looked at and Ben gave me five dollars. When I protested, he insisted: 'You must take it.' I should have framed it but I spent it on a date."
Jenkins had no time for the modern obsession with political correctness. As a life-long smoker himself, he claimed that Hogan would never have won a Major if he hadn't smoked. "And Arnold Palmer never won a Major after he stopped smoking," he added defiantly.
According to Callahan, the first sight Jenkins had of bent-grass greens, was how he imagined Ireland might look. And when he approached the game's leading players, all of them were pleased to join his company. All except Tiger Woods.
"We have nothing to gain," said the player's agent, Mark Steinberg. Callahan called it "the dumbest thing any agent ever said". Especially given Jenkins' prescience in writing at the player's peak: "Only two things can stop him: injury or a bad marriage."
Recalling his first US Open as an 11-year-old at Colonial in 1941, when Hogan was tied third behind Craig Wood, he said: "There's a picture of me walking down the fairway the day before with Byron Nelson, Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen and the defending champion, Lawson Little. There I am with a ticket in my belt. I had Sarazen sign it. And I wrote a caption on it that if this little kid grows up to become a golf writer, this game is in big trouble."
Jenkins was a product of his time, even down to his selected exit music of Vera Lynn singing 'We'll meet again'. It must be quite a gathering.
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