It was my good fortune to know what I wanted to do for a living from the age of 12, about the time I learned I could not touch a curve ball.
If I couldn’t play it, I could write about it. My dad was a sports writer and most of his friends were either sports writers or coaches. All of them seemed to have more fun than the doctors, lawyers, carpenters and plumbers I knew. They didn’t have a lot of money back then – even the coaches – but they surely did have fun. Seemed like a good trade-off to me – and it has been.
Once he knew he could not dissuade me from sports writing, my dad gave me lots of good advice – none any better than this: Read the great writers. And that brings us to the subject of today’s offering: Dan Jenkins.
Jenkins died last week (March 7) at the age of 90. Growing up in Hattiesburg, long before the Internet, I had to go to the public library to read the erudite Red Smith in the New York Times, the remarkably gifted Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times, and my dad’s friend, Furman Bisher, whose columns read like essays, in the Atlanta Journal.
But I didn’t have to make a special trip to read Dan Jenkins. He came to us in our home, weekly in the mail, via Sports Illustrated. I read his stories, mostly about college football and golf, much like a gourmand appreciates a delicious, artfully prepared meal. That is, I read more carefully, more slowly as the story progressed. Why? Because I did not want it to end. Jenkins was that good. He made us laugh (a lot). More importantly, he made us think.
This he wrote about my all-time sports hero, Arnold Palmer:
“He is the most immeasurable of all golf champions. But this is not entirely true because of all that he has won, or because of that mysterious fury with which he has managed to rally himself. It is partly because of the nobility he has brought to losing. And more than anything, it is true because of the pure, unmixed joy he has brought to trying.”
And there you have him: The essence of Arnold Palmer in one paragraph.
Jenkins, once a scratch golfer himself, understood the sport as few others. Besides being a life-long sports writer, I have been a life-long abominable putter. I really never understood my fate until I read this from Jenkins:
“The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting the way an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow. He knows he has used straight shafts, curved shafts, shiny shafts, dull shafts, glass shafts, oak shafts and Great Uncle Clyde’s World War I saber, which he found in the attic. Attached to these shafts have been putter heads made of large lumps of lead (‘weight makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) and slivers of aluminum (‘lightness makes the ball roll true,’ salesmen explain) as well as every other substance harder than a marshmallow. He knows he has tried 41 different stances, inspired by everyone from the club pro to Fred Astaire in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ and as many different strokes. Still, he knows he is hopelessly trapped. He can’t putt, and he never will, and the only thing left for him to do is bury his head in the dirt and live the rest of his life like a radish.”
There you have it: Putting, in a nutshell.
Jenkins could be amazingly incisive. Back in 2001, when Tiger Woods had won four straight majors over two seasons Jenkins said, “Only two things can stop Tiger: injury or a bad marriage.” He eagled that sentence. Twice.
Jenkins wrote equally well about college football. And he wrote books, uproariously hilarious books, such as “Semi-Tough” and “Dead Solid Perfect.” Back in 1977, I read “Semi-Tough” from cover to cover in one sitting – stopping only to guffaw – and then immediately started it again.
I was fortunate to cover The Masters several times, and to be seated around a table leaning in (as were several others), to hear Jenkins tell first-hand tales about Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.
As the years have sped past, I have admired this about Jenkins as much as anything: He has remained relevant all the way through his eighth decade on the planet. Who would have thought that a guy who played golf with Ben Hogan in his 20s, would become such an accomplished practitioner of Twitter nearly 70 years later. Jenkins did.
Last fall, when the U.S. Ryder Cuppers were throwing up all over themselves, Jenkins tweeted: “Odd to see the U.S. surrendering so easily. Especially in France.”
And, little more than three months ago, when President George H.W. Bush passed away:
“Since 41 is the only prez who ever tolerated me as a guest at the White House, Camp David, and Kennebunkport, of course, I mourn his leave taking. But mainly I mourn for the nation’s loss of a great man.”
Rick Cleveland (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.