DAN JENKINS HAS packed his wit and his wools for the ’85 British Open later this month at Royal St. George’s, but for the first time in nearly two decades he won’t be covering golfs oldest major tournament for Sports Illustrated. Jenkins instead will render his inimitable account of the proceedings for the readers of Golf Digest.
It was during last year’s British Open at St. Andrew’s, while Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson waged an epic duel that the Spaniard won on the final hole, that Jenkins reached the semi-tough decision to leave the magazine that had helped make him a household name. Tired of a running battle with editors who mucked up his copy and tried to rein him in, Jenkins decided his days at SI were dead solid finished.
Jenkins faced no shortage of projects to occupy his time, including a fall ’84 tour promoting his new best-seller, Life Its Own-self, the continuing adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett and Co. In January he began cranking out a monthly column on sports for Playboy. In March came weekly commentaries for the ESPN program “Inside the Pro Golfers’ Tour,” and by May he was collaborating with his lifelong buddy, Edwin “Bud” Shrake, on the sequel to Beverly Hills Cop. The working concept: Eddie Murphy goes to London and screws up Scotland Yard.
Plus, Golf Digest had snapped up Jenkins’ services to report on golf’s four grand slam championships. The magazine’s move affirmed that not having Dan Jenkins reporting on golfs major tournaments would be like not having Roger Angell reporting on the World Series. We’re talking serious journalistic voids here.
In early February, despite a spate of deadlines, Jenkins agreed to meet a visitor from Dallas at Juanita’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant he and his wife June opened on New York’s Upper East Side in early 1984 and named after Juanita Hutchins, the cafe waitress-cum-C&W singer who was the principal character of Jenkins’ novel Baja Oklahoma.
Over the next few hours, Jenkins discussed his life, which began on December 2, 1930 in Fort Worth. He talked about being a spoiled kid on whom his relatives doted: “Nobody in my family on either side had graduated from college, so I knew growing up that I would be the first to graduate, no matter what happened.” About how movies had piqued his interest in journalism: “Clark Gable was always running around with a press card in his hatband and it looked like he was having a lot of fun.” About being hired right out of Paschal High in 1948 by Blackie Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press: “I’d written a satire of local sportswriters in the Paschal Pantherette and somebody sent it to Blackie. He thought it was funny and offered me a job.” About his writing habits: “My style is basically what you’d call first person without the ’I.’ ” And his reading habits: “The best writing in America, by far, is the style section of The Washington Post. They’ve got a Murderers’ Row of Stephanie Mansfield, Tom Shales and David Remnick. [The Post also has Jenkins’ daughter, Sally, on its sports staff.] They do incredible 5,000-word pieces on whoever’s in town. It’s wonderful.” About his budding career as a screenwriter: “It’s not something you do for love, but the money’s so ridiculous.. .I can get more than a hundred thousand for a first draft. It supports my journalism habit and my book writing habit.”
Jenkins, once a talented golfer in his own right, waxed enthusiastically about golf. He freely divulged his personal ratings of golfers past (“Ben Hogan was the greatest player ever. I never saw anybody hit as many controlled shots as accurately as he did. Hogan was the greatest shotmaker and strategist, though he probably was no greater a competitor than Nicklaus”); present (“Seve Ballesteros is the best player in the world as we speak. He can do more things than anyone”); and future (“Happily, I’m on record as saying that Mark O’Meara will be a super-star. He’s got a great swing and desire. I like him a lot better than Hal Sutton”)
Dan Jenkins makes for an enjoyable interview, not a funny one. But you knew that, especially if you saw him interviewed at halftime of last year’s TCU-Texas game. There he sat, in the ABC booth atop Amon Carter Stadium sandwiched between Lee Michaels and Lee Grosscup, sounding as though he’d just sucked a lemon. The author of Life Its Ownself-the Semi-Tough sequel in which T.J. Lambert becomes head coach of TCU and Big Ed Bookman bankrolls the Horned Frogs’ recruiting of superbacks Artis Toothis and Tonsillitis Johnson-with nothing pungent or even the least bit memorable to say about a game of such magnitude for the Frogs? Incredible. Maybe the sight of a TCU team competitive for the first time since the early Sixties left him speechless.
Perhaps the interview at Juanita’s would have been funnier if Jenkins had nursed a few junior Scotches instead of holding off whiskey and sipping coffee. Maybe the humor that punctuates his prose seldom surfaced because he saves the funny lines for his own writing. Or maybe the famed Jenkins wit was replenishing itself after a heavy promotional tour in late ’84 for Life Its Ownself which was still clinging to The New York Times list of bestsellers as he spoke.
Jenkins’ split with Sports Illustrated, no laughing matter, was still smoldering, and over a chicken-fried steak and side cup of chili he raked SI over the coals. He’d been reluctant to surrender his SI calling card, he said, until he decided it no longer meant what it once had. Jenkins traced his departure to his belief that 5/ had become “an editors’ magazine” and to differences with managing editor Gil Rogin (who’s since been replaced) and Rogin’s band of “young punk henchmen.” Rogin had little interest in golf, Jenkins claimed, and no appreciation for the fact that many SI subscribers were upscale country clubbers hooked on the game.
Equally irksome were the punks, who would watch the broadcast of a golf tournament and decide they knew the game better than SI’s man on the scene, who happened to be Jenkins. You learn more by listening to a golf tournament than watching it, says Jenkins, meaning that the real story spills out on the practice tee, in the locker room, at the hotel bar or during the all-night bull sessions. The punks began heavily editing the stories Dan Jenkins filed, an act which bordered on blasphemy. The last straw came when Jenkins, who was used to going where he wanted when he wanted and doing what he wanted (“I thought I’d earned the right”), was put on a shorter leash.
SUCH TREATMENT was a far cry from the reception he’d received when he arrived at SI in early 1963. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor who hired Jenkins away from the Dallas Times Herald, followed a game plan of hiring top writers (Tex Maule on pro football and Robert Creamer on baseball, for example) and turning them loose. “He didn’t know anything about writing, but he knew good writing when he read it,” says Jenkins. “He trusted his writers and let you alone. So if an editor started screwing with your copy, you’d go in and tell Andre, and he’d say ’Where is that editor? I’ll kill him.’ It was a writer’s magazine then. It was great.”
Jenkins, who wrote the second column behind Blackie Sherrod and served as director of the Dallas Times Herald sports staff, didn’t hesitate when Laguerre offered him a job at Sports Illustrated. He knew the Big Apple was Big Time. Jenkins accepted in a New York minute, not even bothering to ask the salary. “I thought it would take Dan six months to become their best writer,” says Sherrod. “I was wrong. It took him about a year.”
Jenkins’ first extended assignment for Sports Illustrated was the ’64 Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria. He covered the United States’ long-awaited breakthrough in alpine skiing, when Billy Kidd and Jimmy Huega won America’s first two medals. To call Jenkins a skier might have been stretching a point, but when Laguerre overheard the Texan mention that he’d been to the slopes in Taos and Santa Fe he said, “Good, you’re our skiing writer.”
His forte, though, was writing about the two sports he’d been introduced to as a tot in Fort Worth: college football and golf. For SI readers, the implications of a major bowl game or golf tournament weren’t fully realized until Jenkins penned his perspective, usually written in a race against the clock. “I loved the challenge of knowing I had an hour and a half, two hours to do a story. Sunday nights for me were typewriter heaven,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins’ stories in SI became classics for what writers call the lead, the top paragraph of a story. Consider the lead Jenkins’ filed after Jack Nicklaus won the 78 British Open, his second at the Old Course at St. Andrews:
“As long as a man has to go for a walk on a golf course, there is hardly a better place than straight up the last fairway at St. Andrews, where one is surrounded by 500 years of history and embraced by the building of the old town itself. It is especially wonderful if you do it the way Jack Nicklaus does. Nicklaus made the walk again last week with 30,000 warmly sentimental Scots creating enough noise to have drowned out the roar of a squall howling in off the North Sea.”
To Jenkins, cranking out such gems was no big deal: “I never worked harder on the lead than I did on the rest of the story. Whatever it was, it just came naturally. I relied on everything I am and knew and saw and heard.” Whatever the inspiration for Jenkins’ leads, no one in American sports journalism can consistently match them.
DAN JENKINS BEGAN demonstrating his writing skill as a teenager. He’d seen the Gable movies by then, and having decided to become a journalist, he started thinking like one. He’d spread copies of the Fort Worth Press and Star-Telegram on the kitchen table of his grandmother’s house (his father had split for California years earlier and his mother was busy running a retail shop, leaving him principally in his grandmother’s care) and study how stories were written. Before long, he decided he could write as well or better than the reporters he was reading, so he began rewriting stories and headlines.
In other words, Dan Jenkins never lacked confidence. That separates him from most top-drawer sportswriters, according to Sher-rod, who points out that most are from the Red Smith school of insecurity. Smith, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for The New York Times, once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Though confident, Jenkins doesn’t take sports too seriously. “He knows he’s not writing about Nuremburg,” Sherrod says. “You can sit on a farmer’s front porch and see 50 things more important than sports.”
Sherrod put Jenkins on the Fort Worth Press’ payroll at $25 a week. He encouraged the kid to develop his gift of humorous expression by studying the style of the best sportswriters of the era. Jenkins’ fevorite was Henry McLemore, a United Press columnist. “I remember coming across a bunch of his clips from the Berlin Olympics in ’36. I’ll never forget this one lead. He wrote: ’It is now Tuesday. The Olympic marathon was run on Thursday and I’m still waiting for the Americans to finish.’ I knew that was the kind of attitude I wanted to have.”
An irreverent approach coupled with innate cleverness enabled Jenkins to produce work that was never routine. Jerre Todd, the Fort Worth adman, recalls an important high school football game in the Fifties between rivals Cisco and Brownwood: “Cisco had these star running backs named McClintock and McLarty. I’ll never forget Dan’s headline for the story: ’McClintock, McLarty Make McMincemeat Out Of McBrownwood.’”
Jenkins graduated from TCU in 1953, ending a hectic schedule.”Basically, I led three lives,” he says. “At 6 o’clock I’d be at the Press writing for a 7:30 a.m. deadline. At 9 o’clock, I went to class. By noon, I was on the golf course. By 8 o’clock, I was drunk.”
All the time Jenkins spent on the golf course helped him become the number one player on the TCU varsity. (In 1955, Jenkins finished second in the Fort Worth city championship, a distinction he shares with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson). It also introduced him to the characters, exotic wagers and general eccentricities of public links.
Jenkins absorbed the experiences and put them to work in his prose: “I was the first writer-throwing out P.G. Wodehouse, who wasn’t a journalist-to write about golf with humor. But after all the laughing we’d done at all the crazy gambling games, I couldn’t write it any other way.”
Jenkins didn’t spare his own game from the barbs. Recounting in SI his effort to win the Texas junior championship, he wrote: “… [I] lost 3 and 2 to a cross-handed Mexican wearing tennis shoes. Thirsting for some sort of revenge, I returned the following year and lost to a barefoot 14-year-old who had only five clubs.”
Golf was the subject of two of Jenkins’ first three books-The Best 18 Golf Holes in America and The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. The third, Saturday’s America, was a collection of his essays on college football. His nonfiction books were the warmup; he stepped up to the main event, the novel, with the publication of Semi-Tough in ’72. Billy Clyde Puckett, Shake Tiller and Barbara Jane Bookman bucked into America’s consciousness after Jenkins took inventory of the topics he knew best and put football and Fort Worth at the top of the list. Golf, which came third, was the subject of his second novel, Dead Solid Perfect.
Jenkins’ satire has been aimed at such targets as pretense, hypocrisy, racism, sexism, chauvinism, greed and hypocrisy. Each book expresses Jenkins’ credo that laughing sure beats the heck out of crying. “If anyone looks around, they’ll know that life’s a lot of trouble,” he says. “Goddam, you might as well have some fun.”
What Dan Jenkins has done, in Semi-Tough and Life Its Ownself, is capture without compromise the sights and sounds- and in the case of T.J. Lambert, the smells- of the football locker room. It’s not Jenkins’ imagination that sells his books so much as his realism. Anyone who’s ever been on the periphery of organized sports, college or pro, realizes at once how lifelike his fiction is. His ear for dialogue is so fine-tuned that you recognize the bigotry in Big Ed Bookman or the cynicism in Shake Tiller the instant Jenkins lets them open their mouths.
Many of the fictional situations, of course, are based on fact. Jenkins learned early on what he could and couldn’t write in a daily newspaper and a weekly sports magazine, and he’s saved the ribald stuff, the sex and drugs and the racism and all that, for his novels, in which he camouflages real athletes behind fictional names and characters.
He’s philosophical about it, too: “It’s a matter of journalistic judgment. Some things you leave out because they might be libelous, and some things you leave out to protect your sources. You have to build their trust. Anyway, I’m no Woodward and Bernstein.”
Jenkins’ next book for Simon & Schuster, due in a couple of years, will focus on Jim Tom Pinch, the philandering reporter for the “Fort Worth Light & Shopper,” who will leave Fort Worth and join a major sports magazine in New York. Sound familiar? Late in this decade, Jenkins may serve up a final installment of Semi-Tough.
But before he thinks about Semi-Ill, he’ll handle the first cut at a Life Its Ownself screenplay. Jenkins didn’t have a hand in the movie version of Semi-Tough, and got lathered up about director Michael Ritchie’s treatment of his story. This time, he’ll be involved. “I’ll do the first script and then they’ll fire me and hire someone else,” says Dan Jenkins, who knows that, in Hollywood, that’s life its ownself.