The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dan Jenkins made tough writing look easy and made sentimentality look cranky

In this May 7, 2012, file photo, sports writer Dan Jenkins speaks after receiving the lifetime achievement award during the World Golf Hall of Fame inductions.
In this May 7, 2012, file photo, sports writer Dan Jenkins speaks after receiving the lifetime achievement award during the World Golf Hall of Fame inductions. (Will Dickey/Associated Press)

“It was a gray, drizzly day like most others in Scotland and there was I, a lonely shepherd . . .”

For page after page, Dan Jenkins is that shepherd.

“. . . strolling alone a swollen dune by the North Sea looking for a wee stane to hit wi’ a bit crook. Clumps of heather were up to my knees and the yellow-tipped whin was up to my chest, and I was up to here with my sheep because the little dumplings had wandered away.”

And what does a shepherd do about the wanderers?

“I had this crooked stick in my hand which I normally used to keep the dumplings in line. You know. Firm left side, eye on the tail-bone, slow backswing — and whap.”

Naturally, a lonely shepherd comes to wonder if he might whap a wee stone through the heather and into a rabbit scape on the other side.

“Well, I guess I took it back a little outside because I cut a low one right into the garbage and almost never did find it, but anyhow, this is how I came to invent the game of golf a few hundred years ago.”

Of course he did. Or, at least, he invented golf writing of the kind you’d want to read. I once called him “the greatest golf writer ever, living, dead, or Texan,” and he said, “Two out of those three, I like.”

Jenkins, who died Thursday at 90, loved college football most, but he wrote some of everything. On a Mount Rushmore of sportswriters, Dan would be alongside Grantland Rice, Red Smith, and Jim Murray.

Obit: Dan Jenkins, sportswriter and author, dies at 90.

When Sports Illustrated mattered, Dan was its star and an irresistible influence on kids with dreams. I would prop the magazine alongside my typewriter and copy, word for word, Jenkins’s stories. I had no illusions of ever writing such stories. I just wanted to see if it was possible for my fingers to type those words in that order.

In time, like most every sportswriter of my generation, I wanted to be Dan Jenkins. What a life. There’s Clarke’s, Elaine’s, Toots Shor’s, the Park Avenue apartment, the beautiful wife, June. (“In all my books, I’m the guy and June is the girl, and I always get the girl.”) There’s the getaway place in Hawaii, the “Semi-Tough” quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett, the sportswriter Jim Tom Pinch in “You Gotta Play Hurt,” and the movie “Baja Oklahoma” (with its immortal 10 stages of drunkenness, ending with “9. Invisible” and “10. Bulletproof”).

“Dan Jenkins, Dan Jenkins!” an ingénue of a sportswriter said upon meeting him. “I’ve always wanted to be just like you.”

“What, hungover?” he replied.

He could write symphonies. More often, he wrote little gems. He explained America and golf in 11 words: “Golf is a mental disorder like gambling or women or politics.”

Every Dan Jenkins story could begin with Dan standing at a dimly lit bar. There we were in a Dallas strip mall tavern. Dan Jenkins, famous patron of famous Manhattan saloons, was maybe 80 years old and past his long nights of Scotch. Now he was into orange juice. Now it was early afternoon. The TV had Dan’s attention. It wasn’t football, and it wasn’t golf. It was women’s college basketball.

Dan Jenkins wrote and said the damndest things

To my wonder, he knew the coaches. “Cute,” Dan said of one, “and she’ll cut your heart out.” Dan knew everything that anyone would want to know about the teams that day. His fictional alter-ego, Jim Tom Pinch, would never have put aside a Scotch to cast a disbelieving eye on women’s basketball. But Dan knew it all because his daughter had taught him. In an upset, Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post columnist, had turned a world-weary Jim Tom into a women’s basketball fan.

Dan’s novels are raucous, profane, and politically incorrect; still, even against your will, they make you laugh. The moment in that Dallas bar showed me that Dan’s pose as Jim Tom Pinch may be his best work. Jim Tom is a creation built on just enough truth and just enough fiction to be the best kind of comic character. I realized that beneath the Jim Tom pose, Dan Jenkins was a sentimentalist, albeit a sentimentalist of the cranky persuasion.

Sally has said, with love, “My father is a fraud.” He made the hard work look too easy. He encouraged the idea that he was carefree. Legend that has hardened into fact insists that Dan has covered 68 Masters tournaments from the comfort of the clubhouse’s second-story veranda. As a result, it’s possible to believe the words wrote themselves.

No, no. Sally had seen her father lock himself away to type through the night. To know the words came from a master craftsman’s mind, go back to the top here. The shepherd’s lines are from “You’ll Not Do That Here, Laddie.” It is the best and funniest excursion into Scottish golf that anyone has ever written or ever will write. It can be copied, even copied word for word, but it could be created only by a writer who cared passionately about the subject and his work.

In a memoir, Dan wrote: “My heroes have always been sportswriters. That was why I was proud to become a member of a group known neither far nor wide but only to ourselves as, simply, the Geezers. Aging, cynical sportswriters is what we were. . . . we would sit around for three days to drink and smoke and tell the same stories.”

I remember none of the stories and all of the laughter. The memoir ends with a nod to “Semi-Tough,” the novel that made Dan rich and famous. It ends the way our meetings ended, with words never said out loud but always understood.

It ends with Dan, the sentimentalist, only not so cranky, writing: “Beneath the idiom of the athlete as I knew him — and the locker room language in which the story is told — there are sincere feelings about friends and loyalty. True friends are a priceless commodity in this world, and I’ve been blessed with many. And there are other things intended: a vitality of existence, a hopeful view of life, and a tender attitude about love.”

A Geezer texted me late last night: “God bless him.”