ORLANDO, Fla. — The world of sports — particularly golf — just got a lot less colorful, cynical and witty with the passing of Dan Jenkins at age 89 on Thursday night.
It would have been more romantic had Jenkins made it to his 69th Masters next month before passing, because among the countless indelible literary marks he left during his remarkable run as one of the most influential sportswriters the craft has ever known, some of his most memorable musings came out of his correspondences from Augusta National.
But Jenkins passing during this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational served as its own fitting end, because just as in the case of Palmer, whom Jenkins knew so well, Jenkins left a life well-lived.
I never got to know Jenkins very well and that was my fault because I was somewhat intimidated by his elevated stature, catalog of amazing accomplishments and the curmudgeonly vibe he often carried with him. Yet Jenkins, despite being a titan in the sportswriting industry, was incredibly generous with his time for young-buck sportswriters seeking advice.
Jenkins may have been best known — particularly later in his life — for his golf writing. When he took to Twitter, he delivered some of the sharpest, funniest, most creative 140-character missives during major championships.
But to me, some of Jenkins’ most memorable work was done outside of the golf world. A particular favorite lead to any story I’ve ever seen written came in an October 1966 piece he wrote about Joe Namath in Sports Illustrated, titled “The Sweet Life of Swinging Joe.’’
The opening passage to the story went like this:
“Stoop-shouldered and sinisterly handsome, he slouches against the wall of the saloon, a filter cigarette in his teeth, collar open, perfectly happy and self-assured, gazing through the uneven darkness to sort out the winners from the losers. As the girls come by wearing their miniskirts, net stockings, big false eyelashes, long pressed hair and soulless expressions, he grins approvingly and says, “Hey, hold it, man—foxes.” It is Joe Willie Namath at play. Relaxing. Nighttiming. The boss mover studying the defensive tendencies of New York’s off-duty secretaries, stewardesses, dancers, nurses, bunnies, actresses, shopgirls—all of the people who make life stimulating for a bachelor who can throw one of the best passes in pro football. He poses a question for us all: Would you rather be young, single, rich, famous, talented, energetic and happy — or President?”
A sports writer — young, old, experienced or raw — reading the lead to that piece was like a player paired with Tiger Woods during his run of brilliance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, watching Woods hit shots and realizing there was no chance to beat him.
Much of Jenkins’ work — unwittingly — went that way, demoralizing other writers into realizing they were not worthy. That’s probably why I had only brief, polite encounters with Jenkins: Because I didn’t feel like I was worthy of his time. And that was a mistake, something I particularly regret today as I listen to so many colleagues speak so much about how generous he was with his time for the so-called little people in the industry.
Jenkins, though, wasn’t intimidating only to young sports writers.
Ernie Els, when asked Friday about Jenkins, said, “Yeah, he wasn’t really nice to me, but I obviously read a lot of this stuff. Absolute legend. What a sense of humor, what a gift to write, what a guy, what a loss to journalism.’’
Asked in what way Jenkins wasn’t nice to him, Els said, “He just blew me off a little bit, which was fine. I would also probably blow me off. But I’m a big fan of his. Unfortunately, our generation just missed him, missed his real wit.’’
Everyone — both in the sports writing industry that he influenced so much and those who read him — will miss “His Ownself,’’ as Jenkins referred to himself in his brilliant 2014 “semi-memoir.’’