Dan Jenkins occupies a special place in the sports writing pantheon, especially in the sub-category of golf writing. With 65 years of sports writing behind him, his career has spanned the years from persimmon, hickory, and balata to titanium, graphite, and Surlyn. Dan has covered over 200 majors, including 63 (and soon to be 64) Masters tournaments, penned countless articles and columns, eleven novels – three of which have been made into movies, with varying degrees of success – and nine nonfiction books. Even with that massive body of work to his name, his latest book, His Ownself: A Semi -Memoir – which will be published March 4, 2014 – is the one that his readers have been waiting for.
For me, personally, Dan’s writing was my inspiration to not only take up the game of golf, but, years later, to start writing about it as well. I came late to an appreciation of Dan’s work, picking up a copy of his first – and arguably the first – golf novel, Dead Solid Perfect, about 27 years ago. I bought the book at the suggestion of the father of a young lady I was dating at the time – and as he was a local superior court judge, I tended to follow his advice. Thirty years later, though that particular young lady is many years in my past, I still have that dog-eared paperback copy of Dead Solid Perfect.
Through many hours of reading Dan’s work over the years, I have gained an appreciation of his vast knowledge of golf, college football and just about any other activity that claimed his interest, as well as his uniquely Texan sense of humor. Though born and bred in Central California myself, I have Texas roots– my great-grandfather was a Texas settler in the post-Civil War period, and my grandfather was born in a small town not far from Dan’s hometown of Fort Worth – and Dan’s outlook strikes a responsive chord in me. When the judge suggested that I read Dead Solid Perfect, he added, “Don’t read it anyplace where you’ll feel bad about laughing out loud”, which I came to find was another piece of good advice.
Dan is somewhat of a polarizing character these days, seen by some of the more tightly-wound in the world of sports and sportswriting as a politically-incorrect dinosaur (which he doesn’t deny), but there’s no denying his bonafides as a sportswriter. Over the decades Dan has written about golf and college football, mostly, and other sports – even alpine skiing – when called upon to do so, for the Fort Worth Press, Dallas Herald, Sports Illustrated, and Golf Digest, with a few years of providing a sports column to Playboy magazine thrown in. He has covered more of golf’s major tournaments than any writer living, and speaking of that, he is one of only three golf writers to have been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame (the others being Herbert Warren Wind and Bernard Darwin) and the only one inducted, in his words, “while still vertical”.
In His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir, Dan delves into his formidable memory (and the archives of his former employers, when memory doesn’t serve) and comes up with tales of his early life growing up in a sports-crazy town, Fort Worth, Texas, in a sports-crazy time, the 1930s. College football and golf were the most important sports of his formative years, with the championship-caliber TCU Horned Frogs in town and the SMU Mustangs just down the road in Dallas, not to mention that two of the greatest golfers ever to swing a club, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, also Fort Worth native sons, were stars in the sport from when Dan was a youngster.
Dan began his career with the Fort Worth Press, starting on the job as an incoming college freshman in 1947. Over the years he met and wrote about all the greats – he got to know Ben Hogan while still a college golfer and sportswriter for the Forth Worth Press, and came to know the great man very well over the years – as well as Byron Nelson, TCU football immortals “Slingin’ Sam” Baugh and Davey (Slingshot) O’Brien, SMU’s Doak Walker, and many others too numerous to list.
My favorite thing about His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir, is the fact that it opens a window into Dan’s early life and gives us a look at how he came to be the “ink-stained wretch” that three generations of sports fans have come to know and love.
Raised by loving grandparents from a very early age after his parents split up, Dan was anything but the product of a broken home; in fact, he was surrounded by family – literally, as an aunt and uncle lived across the street, a cousin and his wife lived next door, and another aunt and uncle lived with Dan and his grandparents off and on. He saw his mother regularly – she still lived Fort Worth – and his father whenever there was a big sports event in town. His early life shaped Dan’s outlook, and is reflected in his work, especially his fiction.
Most of Dan’s fictional protagonists are from Fort Worth, from football hero Billy Clyde Puckett, of Semi-Tough, to pro golf jocks Kenny Lee Puckett and Bobby Joe Grooves, of Dead Solid Perfect, and The Money-Whipped Steer-Job Three-Jack Give-Up Artist and Slim and None, respectively, and golf writer Jack Brannon of The Franchise Babe. These wise-cracking, high-living heroes tend to resemble Dan in many ways, from their love lives (a couple of strike-outs followed by a home run, in the marriage department) to their South Side, Paschal High backgrounds. Hell, they’re even all deathly afraid of snakes, just as Dan is.
Stories from Dan’s own life, both his early years in Fort Worth and his subsequent world-traveling career with Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and Golf Digest, invest his fiction. Readers of His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir who have read his other work – and I cannot imagine that they won’t have – will recognize the tenor of his fictional tales in the stories he tells of his early life and subsequent career.
Many characters and personalities from his professional life, and even mildly altered versions of real-life incidents from his personal life, have made their way into his fiction over the years, and the dedicated Jenkins reader will be delighted to discover these serendipities as they read His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir. Some more critical readers, encountering the real-life incidents recounted in this book that have been reflected in Jenkins’ fiction, may lambast him for the roman-à-clef qualities of his novels, but personally, I delighted in discovering these matchups between real life and fiction.
The bottom line is that anyone who is a fan of sports writing, especially where it pertains to golf from the days of Hogan, Nelson, and Snead to the present, is doing themselves a disservice if they don’t read His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir. Over the years, Dan Jenkins has seen it all, has known them all, and has written about it all, in the kind of brash, sometimes cynical, sometimes playful – but always insightful – prose that is a rare commodity in these tip-toeing days of million-dollar tournament paychecks and big-buck corporate sponsorship. No sports fan’s, and especially no golf fan’s, library is complete without this book.