American sportswriting lost a legend when Dan Jenkins died last week. I don’t know who’s the second-best golf writer in history, but No. 1 is an easy call: Jenkins. He was wickedly funny and insider-smart.
I’ll miss him, but at least we’ve still got his words. So, here’s a Dan Jenkins sampler, my ranking of his 10 best books. I can’t think of a better tribute. Your list might be completely different, of course, but that’s fine. It just means you’re wrong.
1. “The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate” (1970): If you only read one Jenkins book, this is it, the bible of golf. It’s a time-capsule collection of his classic magazine pieces, some of them expanded here, and timeless inside tales of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and assorted other celebrities, thanks to insider access that only Jenkins could finagle. There’s the time Jenkins played in a pro-am, was paired with Palmer and became so nervous that a series of Inspector Clouseau-like bumbles ensued, including burning holes in his cashmere sweater with his fumbled cigarette ashes.
The greatest single chapter ever penned on golf is “The Glory Game,” the tale of Jenkins and his wild-and-crazy golf buddies breaking all the rules (and some laws) at the Fort Worth muni they called Goat Hills. Most of it is true (maybe even the tipped-over-golf-cart battery acid eating through his shorts?) and, I suspect, Jenkins left out even worse stuff that was too incriminating. If you don’t laugh out loud during “The Glory Game,” please check your driver’s license. You might be Bill Belichick. Grade: A-plus.
2. “Saturday’s America” (1970): I was a diehard college football follower in the 1960s and ’70s and read and re-read this paperback so many times, it was more worn than a doggie toy. This is the “Dogged Victims” of college football, a collection of Jenkins’ semi-hilarious looks at the stars and teams of the times. This may have been the book that inspired me to chase journalism. So, I am Jenkins’ fault.
Jenkins wrote with such hilarious irreverence. He imagined Woody Hayes happily piloting the Enola Gay, and he dusted Ara Parseghian and the Fighting Irish with a withering rewrite of Notre Dame’s school song (sing along, kids: “Old Notre Dame will tie after all…”) following 1966’s titanic “game of the century” with Michigan State that ended 10-10, with the Irish shamelessly killing the clock.
The best chapter is personal, once again. It’s two football-crazy men and their long-suffering wives who spend weekends attending as many Southwest Conference football games as they can stay sober for, sort of. It ends when the lead guy’s wife asks her husband, Joe Coffman (or Jenkins), if they’re really driving all the way to Little Rock (or some other distant venue) next weekend for the Texas game. Jenkins wrote: Joe Coffman looked offended. “They’re playin’, ain’t they?” Grade: A-plus.
3. “Semi-Tough” (1972): Jenkins semi-invented the semi-use of the semi-anything mention. This is the ballad of Billy Clyde Puckett, a good ol’ boy from Texas who’s now the star running back for the New York Football Giants, who just happen to end up in the Super Bowl playing against the “dog-ass Jets,” as Jenkins describes them.
Did I mention this is a novel? It’s hilarious, vulgar, completely politically incorrect now, sexist and probably racist, but Jenkins has Texan culture from the ’50s and ’60s nailed. He is Texan culture. He’s a creature of the ’50s. When I asked about his email address – TermThemes – he was surprised I didn’t know. What he called term themes, I called essay tests. Times change, but Jenkins always was the Funniest Man Who Ever Roamed the Earth with a Marlboro. Grade: A-plus.
4. “Dead Solid Perfect” (1974): The raunchy, sexy, vulgarity of “Semi-Tough” moves to golf as Kenny Lee Puckett, a relative of ol’ Billy Clyde, tries to win the U.S. Open. That “Glory Game” chapter from “Dogged Victims” comes to life here along with his real-life pals – Foot the Free, Matty, Willard Peacock – and their schemes.
Three memorable highlights (among many):
Puckett and sportswriter Jim Tom Pinch finagle a way to insert fake high school football scores onto the wire service, and as the weeks pass, they add fake write-ups and more details. The point? They bet on their fake team, the Corbett Comets, and put their winnings on the fake conference championship game. They lost! The bookie outsmarted them. I once asked Jenkins if this scam was true. I don’t recall his answer, but I think, between chuckles, he said that most of it was.
Selfish tour pro Donny Smithern’s all-too-familiar view of life: “[Bleep] mankind. Just let me make some birdies.”
The title became a cultural catchphrase. It came from the bookie’s teaching moment to Puckett about the failed betting scam. He said: “A man can travel far and wide – all the way to shame or glory and back again – but he ain’t never gonna find nothin’ in this old world that’s dead solid perfect.” Grade: A-plus.
5. “Fast Copy” (1988): An intrepid female reporter, who sounds like a female version of Jenkins, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms, chases a breaking story in Fort Worth about serial bank robberies and a brave Texas Ranger breaking up the gang. I’m not sure I bought Jenkins as a chick, but as an old ink-stained newspaper guy myself, I loved the realistic inside-the-newsroom stuff plus Jenkins’ recurring and universal theme every writer relates to: editors suck (but not the guy who edits this column … honest). Grade: A.
6. “Limo” (1976): Jenkins and Bud Shrake, his pal and co-author, skewer the shallow world of network TV. This is basically “Semi-Tough” with Nielsen ratings instead of football. The usual raunch, debauchery and vulgarity rules. The hero invents a show called “Just Up The Street” (or JUTS, the network guys call it). It shows real life in America, except the producer sexes up the show by injecting fake events to see the characters react. Not long after this book came out, an equally shallow show called “Real People” was a real network hit. Coincidence? Jenkins and Shrake, high school buddies, should’ve gotten royalties. Grade: A.
7. “Life Its Ownself” (1984): These are the semi-tougher adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett and buddy Shake Tiller. In other words, a sequel. Still Jenkins-funny even though we’ve already been there and done that. Grade: B-plus.
8. “His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir” (2014): The master spills his secrets and tells us about his semi-charmed life, including the warts. What a different time he lived in. Most modern sportswriters wanted to be Jenkins. All modern sportswriters wanted to write like him, the ultimate tribute. Grade: B-plus.
9. “You Gotta Play Hurt” (1991): Irreverent sports columnist Jim Tom Pinch gets his own novel. He’s the Grinch who blows up the phony hype around every major sporting event (nothing like Jenkins, obviously). “You Gotta Play Hurt” has a Hall of Fame opening: Jenkins’ plan to murder his incompetent editor by repeatedly slamming his typewriter’s return carriage into the guy’s head. Typewriter? Return carriage? If you’re puzzled, look them up in your Encyclopedia Britannica.
Later, Pinch gets romantically involved with a smart, beautiful, female writer. A man can dream, can’t he? Grade: B.
10. “Baja Oklahoma” (1981): The usual suspects (but with different names) move to the music field. Juanita is the heroine. She’s the star server at Herb’s Café in Fort Worth but dreams of being a country-music singer and songwriter, even though she’s forty-something. Willie Nelson wrote a song from a set of the book’s lyrics for a movie version.
Jenkins ensured his literary immortality with “Mankind’s Ten Stages of Drunkenness.” It starts with Witty and Charming at No. 10 and concludes with Invisible (No. 2) and Bulletproof (No. 1). You can find the whole list in this book, or on the wall at a lot of America’s finest adult-beverage establishments.
He also invents the phrase, “That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it,” now an oft-stolen cliché. Grade: B.
Those are 10 books you won’t be sorry you read. Unless you hate laughing.
As for my Jenkins rankings, they may not be dead solid perfect. Nothin’ ever is in this world.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle