David Lauderdale

Sports Illustrated legend turned Hilton Head’s brackish water into wine for RBC Heritage

Watch legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins explain why he still “can’t wait to go to work”

Legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins
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Legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins

Dan Jenkins was honored last week at the Masters in Augusta.

We should be doing the same thing this week on Hilton Head Island.

He was a writer, but calling Dan Jenkins a writer is like calling Aretha Franklin a singer.

And so it was that his work station in the palatial press room at Augusta National sat empty this year during Tiger’s roar.

Jenkins passed away March 7 in Fort Worth, Texas, his home town in a state where he said they’d drown you if you weren’t a sports fan. The New York Times headline said: “Dan Jenkins, 90, chronicler of sports in raucous prose, dies.”

Jenkins was credited with changing the sports-writing world between the time his aunt plunked a typewriter down on the kitchen table and told the boy to “play like a writer,” and his last tweet on Feb. 4 (“Regarding Sergio: Over the years, I’ve seen several tour pros take a nasty divot out of the bent with one angry chop”).

But for Hilton Head and the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing that tees off in Sea Pines for the 51st time this week, Jenkins did something much greater.

His Sports Illustrated story about the first Heritage tournament in 1969 changed the course of South Carolina history, and helped make us all rich and famous.

Jenkins — he of Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest who would cover 231 majors — took us seriously. He came on that Thanksgiving weekend to witness a hair-brained idea over the brand new Harbour Town Golf Links, a chili dip in the making.

It was Dan Jenkins who told the world that “Jack’s course is Arnie’s too.”

Few knew it at the time, but the stars were aligned: Charles Fraser dreamed it, Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye designed it, Arnold Palmer won it, and Dan Jenkins said it was so.

Sports Illustrated

Dan Jenkins knew golf.

“The devoted golfer is an anguished soul who has learned a lot about putting just as an avalanche victim has learned a lot about snow,” he said.

But as for the Lowcountry, it didn’t look like a place destined for greatness in 1969. Local children had worms and scurvy, a massive petro-chemical plant was planned for Victoria Bluff, public schools were just then integrating, the island was six years away from having a hospital. But the 3,000 residents were thrilled with the prospects of the brand new Palmetto Dunes, Harbour Town, Sea Pines Montessori, the Children’s Center — and golf.

World-class golf? Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus golf?

Jenkins said it was so:

“In a dolled-up swamp off the coast of South Carolina’s Lowcountry on an island with more dripping moss and crooked magnolias than you would find in a dozen Civil War novels, Jack Nicklaus made his debut as a golf-course designer last week before the toughest possible audience — his fellow touring pros. These included his friendly rival, Arnold Palmer, who seized the occasion to show Jack and everybody else how the magnificent course ought to be played.”

He said this about Hilton Head’s dream:

“One of the more curious aspects of the week was that Palmer was able to win on a course that suited him about like a wig, thick sideburns and a protest poster. Harbour Town is some golf course, folks, just about the best new course that anyone has built in ages, a brutally narrow, abruptly twisting tangle of brooding pines, oaks, palmettos and magnolias with tiny greens guarded by wriggling bunkers and fierce marshes.

“Hit the ball just slightly off line at Harbour Town and you need Sheriff Rainey and them dogs to go fetch it. In an era when architects for some reason enjoy giving us 7,000-yard courses with greens the size of a supermarket parking lot, Nicklaus and his partner, Pete Dye, have done just the opposite. They have used great imagination and given us nothing short of a work of art.”

The amens have been in his corner ever since.

‘Semi-Tough’

Jenkins would later write “Semi-Tough,” the most famous of his 20-plus books, while holed up in a Hilton Head villa.

Curry Kirkpatrick, his Sports Illustrated writing colleague who now lives on Hilton Head, said it didn’t take Jenkins long to crank out the book that Burt Reynolds would turn into a smash movie.

“One summer after he told the world about Hilton Head, we were vacationing with our families here,” Kirkpatrick said, “and Dan wrote this fabulously funny novel in ONE MONTH because, as he told me, ‘I have to pay for the (three) kids’ colleges.’ “

Sally Jenkins is using her Stanford University degree, thank you very much, as a celebrated sports columnist at The Washington Post.

“Dan loved the island,” said Kirkpatrick, who wrote the Sports Illustrated story on the second Heritage tournament, again cementing its place in golf history.

“He loved root beer on the island. For some reason, known only to him, he called it the ‘Wine of the Lowcountry.’

On this Heritage weekend, propose a toast to Dan Jenkins, whose words turned our brackish water into wine.

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