Honoring Dan Jenkins: Golf and the Fourth Estate


I was interested in the recent announcement that the Golf Writers Association of America has named Luke Donald (European/PGA Tours), Yani Tseng (European/LPGA) and Tom Lehman (Champions Tour) as Golfers of the Year, and that the three will be honored at Augusta in April. This news aroused some curiosity about the GWAA itself, along with collaborating organizations such as the AGW of Britain (who honored Graeme McDowell). I was further fascinated by an article from February of 2010, in which the GWAA threw a fit at the tightly controlled Tiger Woods press conference, which they correctly anticipated was to be much ado about nothing.  After being told who could be present, and that no questions would be allowed, the GWAA concluded, albeit caustically, that Mr. Woods “might be the greatest golfer in the game, but is acting like something else.”

 
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The debate about the real job of the press (the Fourth Estate) is held continually on every level. In the U.S., journalism has no special constitutional mandate or privilege, but is  at the same time, often the only thing standing between the population and utter fraud or abuse. The Supreme Court has run a zig-zag course (as it has with most things through history) as to press accessibility. The press can be annoying beyond measure, but offers its readers and listeners an essential service regarding central aspects and institutions of society – clarity, to call a thing what it is, to root out “bull” and expose it.


Sports journalism, of course, operates in less dangerous territory. There are no troop movements or missile codes, so the stakes of the debate are different. However, the principle is the same, and the Woods incident led me to another article, one honoring an eighty two year old “tell it like it is” golf journalist, the first to be inducted into 2012’s World Golf Hall of Fame, along with the three Golfers of the Year,  Phil Mickelson and Hollis Stacey at Augusta.

To paraphrase Golf Digest, what great players have done for the game, Dan Jenkins has done for coverage of the game – and to quote them, his career has passed from “Hogan to Woods, persimmon to titanium.” In other words, Dan Jenkins has been telling it like it is through the entire modern age of golf, and he’s still telling it. Granted, there’s no secret nuclear technology or nefarious spy rings so far, but Jenkins is following the prime directive of the press – stay uncontrolled, dig at the unembroidered truth and let it fall where it falls.

Jenkin’s writings on Texas golf in the days of Hogan and Nelson are considered masterpieces of classical golf literature, and those two players were, to him, the zenith. He is an observer of the tour and how players and fans fit within it. For example, more interesting than Hogan winning the U.S. Open again was Jenkin’s  observation that Hogan questioned why anyone would want to watch it (“Don’t they have something better to do?”).  He opined that after watching a corpulent Billy Casper win a major while playing horribly from tee to green, America’s golfers might throw away every club but the putter and add meals between meals to their day.

Jenkins can be sharp, but that’s part of the “let it fall where it falls.” In ’60, at Augusta, he suggested that Ken Venturi “…can’t win the Masters and Arnold Palmer can’t lose it.” The next year, he observed that Gary Player was the Masters champion because “Palmer was in too big a hurry to win it again.” He added that the 18th “might just as well have been a piece of meat, the way Palmer butchered it.”
Jenkins, right or wrong, verbalized social and cultural change on the tour, noting that the advent of Lee Trevino upset the dignity of the U.S. Open with the hollering of “Lee’s Fleas” and the common look of his “choppy, public-course swing.” As they should, though, times have changed.
The power of the press will always swing back and forth, depending on how irritating it is in one instance, or how critically it is needed in another. They will save us from being duped yet again, and they will overzealously belabor unnecessary issues. But, consider where we’d be without sports journalism. In terms of golf, we’d be looking over the fence, wondering who those strange people with the sticks are, and what they’re doing so close to our property.

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