The only missing piece last weekend at Augusta National, where Tiger Woods marched with a take-no-prisoners determination to capture his fifth Masters title, was Dan Jenkins.
If you count his latter day tweets, Jenkins, who passed away on March 7 in Fort Worth, Texas at the age of 90, spent more than 60 years writing sports at a preeminent level: he was one of the few who could have adequately described the four magical days which propelled Woods back to the head of his class after years of mostly self-inflicted purgatory.
Wry, breezy, evocative without pretention, Jenkins transcended the genre, particularly when he was focused on two sports he was intimately attached to — golf and college football.
Fortunately, he leaves behind 22 works, 12 fiction (including “Semi-Tough,” “Dead Solid Perfect,” and “Baja Oklahoma,” all of which were filmed) and the rest, superior sports writing.
The man was prolific: his 500 plus by-lines at Sports Illustrated is a still a record.
Tiger Woods particularly seemed to galvanize Jenkins.
Here is his lede when Woods won the 2000 PGA: “The golfer who is going to challenge Tiger Woods and keep him from owning all the oceans, mountains, and air we breathe, to say nothing of our tacos and fruit groves, is a kid only ten years old that we haven’t heard of yet. But he’s been playing golf since he was two, he’s been on the back tees since he was seven, he’s already 6-3 and 195, he lives in Texas, California, or Florida, he hits balls on the range 16 hours a day…”
Jenkins discovered his vocation when he was ten years old. His grandmother found an ancient typewriter in the attic and left it on the kitchen table for him. Starting off by just copying sports and war stories out of the local newspaper, Jenkins soon discovered that he could improve the writing. “I haven’t done anything but type and know people since,” he later remarked.
After a stint working for the legendary writer/editor Blackie Sherrod at the Fort Worth Press, Jenkins landed a job with Sports Illustrated in New York. He was there for almost 25 years and is credited with creating the droll tone that was SI’s hallmark during its halcyon times.
Retired senior writer for SI, Doug Looney, once recalled how much pressure contributors were under in those days. Before ESPN or internet, SI, with its mammoth readership, was the currency of the land — sitting in the press box at an important, nationally televised game, surrounded by a legion of writers chasing the same story, it was a daunting assignment to find a unique angle.
Yet Jenkins did it with apparent ease.
Here’s what Jenkins led with following the 1978 Super Bowl drubbing the Dallas Cowboys gave the Denver Broncos: “As Super Bowls go, the one played indoors last Sunday in New Orleans was way up there for mosts — it had the most fumbles, the most hitting, the most noise, the most penalties, the most trick plays, and no doubt the most X’s and O’s stamped on a coach’s forehead, as Dallas’ Tom Landry nailed Denver’s Red Miller to a blackboard and left him there. And, when last seen, the Cowboys’ two biggest heroes, Randy White and Harvey Martin, were still lecturing the State of Colorado on the mysteries of the flex defense.”
These two sentences perfectly display the Jenkins writing credo: be accurate, informative and entertaining (in that order).
He always was on the lookout for the defining moment in any event, but agreed with the late and much missed sportswriter, Dick Young, who believed stories spilled out in practice sessions, locker rooms and hotel bars.
And it didn’t hurt that Jenkins had a naturally wicked sense of humor. He once wrote, “If every college football team had a linebacker like Dick Butkus, all fullbacks would soon be three feet tall and sing soprano.”
After leaving SI in the 1980’s over a dispute with his editor, Jenkins wrote for several other publications, most notably Golf Digest.
In all, Jenkins covered 68 of the 83 Masters Tournaments; it’s a shame he wasn’t on hand this year.
The field was as deep as any Masters has ever featured: on Saturday, three players posted final scores of 64, just off the course record of 63. Never before had more than one pro shot a 64 in the whole Masters week, let alone in a single round.
Tiger Wood’s gripping one stroke win was a highlight reel of uncharacteristic patience and conservative shot-making from a champion known for aggressiveness.
Tiger’s decision to play it safe on the par 3, 155 yard 12th hole in the final round — go to the center of the green instead of aiming for the pin and risk landing in Rae’s Creek — was central to the final outcome (Jenkins almost certainly would have taken notice of this apparent channeling of Ben Hogan.)
Those who run the Masters certainly remembered Dan Jenkins: in the palatial Augusta National press room, his work station was kept vacant, a sign of respect for a writer of prodigious accomplishment.