Review: Jenkins' 'His Ownself' feels semi-historic

Dan Jenkins' "His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir," published by Doubleday in 2014.
Dan Jenkins' "His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir," published by Doubleday in 2014. ( Doubleday )

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: "His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir," by Dan Jenkins; Doubleday, 2014, 267 pages; $26.95

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In 1962 when Dan Jenkins got called up to the big leagues – a plum assignment covering his two great sporting loves, golf and college football, for Sports Illustrated in New York – he recalls his mentor, Blackie Sherrod, saying, “You won’t have a problem. Right or wrong, you’re the most confident writer I’ve ever known.”

Bingo. Give Blackie the hole-in-one prize. Jenkins writes the way Bubba Watson plays golf. His style is utterly his own. You’re never quite sure what the next sentence will bring, but you can’t wait to find out.And always, his playful use of language reflects his upbringing among a colorful cast of Texans.

In the perfectly titled “His Ownself,” Jenkins opens up the personal playbook on his 84 years, the past 52 (and counting) spent chasing the world’s top golfers around the world for SI and Golf Digest. The result is a rich history of a remarkable life, with no shortage of laugh-out-loud passages.

Jenkins’ professional life seemingly was preordained. As a child his movie heroes were newspaper people – Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday” or Spencer Tracy in “Woman of the Year.” When World War II struck, the 12-year-old Jenkins would pound out rewrites of wire-service stories from the front lines. The list of his confederates on the Paschal High School newspaper in Fort Worth reads like a Murderers’ Row of journalistic heavy-hitters, including future SI colleague Bud Shrake.

Jenkins was a fine golfer, good enough that Ben Hogan, his occasional golf partner, once offered him three months of free instruction to prepare him for a U.S. Amateur bid. Jenkins declined, drawing a “cold stare” from The Hawk. He preferred to play the role of O.B. Keeler to Hogan’s Bobby Jones.

What’s striking is not the names that appear in the book; rather it’s the depth of the relationships that Jenkins apparently enjoyed during his career. From his earliest days at the Fort Worth Press, he developed lifelong friendship s with Hogan and Byron Nelson, Bobby Lane and Doak Walker. He played golf as a young scribe with Babe Zaharias (she took him for $12 but refused to collect) and later enjoyed regular long talks with Jack Nicklaus (“the best interview of any athlete I ever covered in any sport”).

Elsewhere, he would drink with Bear Bryant, have dinner with Sugar Ray Robinson and cover the Winter Olympics with Robert Redford. He even had passages of his books recited to him from memory by President George W. Bush.

Jenkins clearly prefers those early days to the current environment, and not just because he could enjoy a cigarette indoors at his favorite watering holes and swap saucy one-liners without fear that the thought police would lead him away in shackles. For most of Jenkins’ Hall of Fame career – he’s one of only three writers to have been inducted – he didn’t so much cover athletes as walk among them, not just asking a few questions but rather becoming a trusted confidante. These days, the media’s access often is limited to the press tent, and the world’s top golfer deigns to pass word through his handlers that “we have nothing to gain” from talking with the sport’s most famous scribe.

Self-styled ethicists might argue that such old-school closeness to sources clouded objectivity. But the truth is, there’s no shortage of hagiography from today’s detached, “objective” journalists. Whereas Jenkins and his contemporaries wrote intimately about heroes they knew well, today’s celebrity journalists often opine on the most private thoughts of athletes they’ve never met.

Ten years after arriving in New York, Jenkins hit it big with the publication of “Semi-Tough” – “the book that changed my life.” (Fun fact: Jenkins borrowed a hilarious Claude Harmon dinner toast for “Semi-Tough’s” Big Ed Bookman.) What followed was a side career writing books and Hollywood screenplays. “Semi-Tough” no doubt changed many more lives, as young sports fans, including this one, devoured its semi-racy pages and dreamed of spending their days writing about games rather than getting a real job.

So Jenkins has that on his conscience. Which is semi-ironic.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Golfweek magazine; click here to subscribe. readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.