To those who have read Dan Jenkins's witty and sardonic takes on football and golf over the last 50 years in magazines (including SI) and in novels such as Semi-Tough and Dead Solid Perfect, his racially insensitive but playful tweet during the Masters about Y.E. Yang ("Yang is three shots off the lead. I think we got takeout from him last night") should have come as no surprise. In Semi-Tough (1972) the narrator is a Southern-bred white running back in an NFL that was becoming increasingly black. "Just because I may happen to say nigger doesn't mean that I'm some kind of racist," says Billy Clyde Puckett.
This is an article from the April 26, 2010 issue
Puckett is just as fixated on other racial groups—"We might call a spook a spook, unless he's a spick"—and he also knows that a white running back is a dying breed in the NFL. The character was pure satire, but there's a creepy resonance to his anxiety about change. For Jenkins, who at 80 still writes a monthly column for Golf Digest, golf is not the game it was when he started writing about it in the 1950s, when two former caddies from his hometown of Fort Worth were the world's best. Former pro David Ogrin has rightfully called Jenkins "a hostile voice from a previous era." In the aftermath of the Yang comment, Jenkins couldn't even muster an apology, leaving Golf Digest editor Jerry Tarde to offer a boilerplate mea culpa.
Yet I suppose Jenkins has the right to cling to the past. "I can't help it that I saw Hogan and Snead and Byron in their prime," said Jenkins in a 2001 Golf Digest interview. But does he have to sneer at players for not looking and acting the way they did 50 years ago, when every golfer was white and they all broke bread with him? Allegedly, his takedown of Tiger Woods in a February Golf Digest column came after the golfer turned down his dinner invitation. Said Jenkins by way of telling us that Tiger is no Hogan, Palmer or Nicklaus, "Tiger is graveyard dead."
The truth is that Hogan and Nelson are dead, and golf, as it should, moves on. In a generation the PGA Tour could look far more like Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi (and Vijay Singh and Tongchai Jaidee). Korean women dominate the LPGA, and Augusta National, a place Jenkins loves, reserves a spot in the Masters for the winner of the Asian Amateur, part of the club's effort to grow the game in the Far East.
Jenkins was one of the most stylish and unique magazine writers of the 20th century, but it's his own legacy he injures when he takes cheap shots at those who don't conform to his reminiscences. He, and the rest of us, would do well to embrace change. We don't have to snipe at the present to revel in the past.
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