While Dan Jenkins, who died March 7 at age 89, will long be remembered as the fastest draw in the sportswriting game—and the most-deadly accurate as well—I’ll always remember him for the early promotion he gave golf course architecture.
In a two-part Sports Illustrated series that ran in 1965, Jenkins picked “The Best 18 in America.” They were the cover stories for both the Feb. 15 and Feb. 22 issues, the first cover a glorious, aerial view of the sixth hole at Seminole, the second cover a series of nine diagrams of great holes, from the 10th at Winged Foot West to the 18th at Pebble Beach.
In retrospect, those articles, and his 1966 book on the same subject, were exceedingly influential in exposing the golfing public to great private courses, including Merion, Oakmont, Oakland Hills and Scioto. The popular Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf television program focused on international venues like France, Switzerland and Argentina, and it wasn’t until 1966 that Golf Digest introduced its first national ranking of golf courses, then called America’s 200 Toughest.
It was Dan Jenkins who got golfers studying golf holes, critiquing them, redesigning them.
His initial Best 18 list, he wrote, consisted of six halfbacks and five tight ends, so he decided the holes on his Best 18 had to occupy the same positions on their own courses. He went with the opening hole at Merion for his first hole. Merion’s 11th, where Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam, also made his list, the only course that contributed two holes.
The seventh at Pine Valley, the 12th at Augusta National, the 16th at Oakland Hills South—what golf design buffs today would label The Usual Suspects—all made his list.
As a native of Fort Worth, it’s understandable that some hole from Colonial Country Club had to be in there, and he chose its fifth hole, writing of that long par 4 along the Trinity River:
“I looked down the fairway and thought how they had built it especially for the 1941 Open, and how it had taken 25 men, mules, TNT and two weeks to clear out the huge pecan trees and level the land. They could have spent a couple more days and leveled a bit more …”
For a long time, it bugged me that, amongst this pantheon of great golf holes, one stuck out like a pair of brown shoes, the 17th at Quail Creek Golf & Country Club in Oklahoma City. Years before I ever met Dan, I learned how that hole ended up on his list.
I learned it from the golf architect Floyd Farley, who had designed Quail Creek, as well as many other courses in the Midwest over a 40-year career before retiring to Sedona, Ariz., where he died in 2005 at 98. I interviewed Floyd in 1984, at his Oklahoma City home, and at Quail Creek, where we took a cart and rode around the layout.
When the club first opened in 1961, he told me, former tour player Ernie Vossler was hired as the head pro. Vossler had grown up in Fort Worth and had played on a high school golf team with Jenkins. They were good friends. Ernie was one of many that Jenkins called soliciting suggestions for his Best 18.
Vossler told him that Quail Creek had a bang-up 17th, a long par 5 with a multi-level green, and Jenkins said he’d stop by and play it. But by the time Jenkins got around to visiting Quail Creek, club officials had reversed the nines, so their 17th was now the eighth.
Jenkins had already picked the eighth at Prairie Dunes as the Best Eighth Hole. He needed a 17th, he told Vossler (and Farley, who was there that day), so they went out and looked at Quail Creek’s newly designated 17th (the old eighth), a straightway par 4 with a creek well short of the green. “I’m up against a deadline,” Floyd remembered Jenkins saying, “so I guess it’ll have to do.”
That’s why, on his list of otherwise incredible golf holes, Jenkins’s Best 17th was hardly All-American, just a long, nondescript par 4, back then nearly treeless, its main feature a creek in the right rough that crossed the fairway 80 yards short of the green.
Jenkins was less than complimentary in his description of the course: “One day there is nothing but a bald hill, a swamp, a valley or a prairie and the next day—zap—a new golf course appears, with a clubhouse that rears up like an airline terminal. Then a day later—zap, zap—a real-estate development surrounds the fairways with four cars in every garage and a whole steer in every freezer.” Even his writeup of that hole seemed strained, complaining about sonic booms as an additional hazard when playing the hole. (As if that was exclusive to that hole.)
There is a postscript to this tale. In 1999, I convinced Jenkins to reprise his Best 18 list for Golf Digest, picking only from holes that didn’t exist back in 1965. He invited me to work with him on the selections. It started with him sending me a short list of holes he admired, then me sending him a flurry of lists, a dozen possible first holes, second holes, etc. We then met in Fort Worth, where I spread out diagrams, blueprints and photographs across a hotel desk, bed and floor and we chewed over the merits and shortcomings of each.
“I’ve seen this hole a thousand times,” he said of one second-hole candidate.
“Dan, you’ve seen every hole a thousand times,” I replied.
“Only the great ones,” he said. “That’s why you’re here. To fill in the blanks.”
Another hole he rejected because it was in Arkansas. “I effin’ hate Arkansas,” he said.
Over a weekend, we hammered out a Best 18, plus three honorable mentions per hole to appease friends and subscribers. I had been smart enough to scribble down many of Dan’s one-liners as he examined certain holes and gave them to him on 3×5 note cards. He used a few of them in the final article, but tossed the rest in favor of more inspired material.
Like the first time, the updated Best 18 was published as a two-parter. “America’s Best 18 Holes – The New Generation” appeared in the February and March 2000 issues of Golf Digest. It opens with the first at Sand Hills (shown above), Jenkins relying upon my description for its selection, although it helped that Ben Crenshaw was its co-designer.
It’s heavy on Jack Nicklaus (the fourth at Bear Creek, 10th at Castle Pines and 14th at Muirfield Village), as well as Tom Fazio (the third at Ventana Canyon, ninth at Barton Creek and 15th at Black Diamond Ranch). Three from Pete Dye, the 16th at Blackwolf Run River, 17th at TPC Sawgrass and the 18th at Harbour Town, close out the round. Dan also slid in a hole from Fort Worth, the par-5 11th at Mira Vista Country Club, a Jay Morrish-Tom Weiskopf design that Dan and I toured, and debated, before the final vote.
At some point while working on that piece, I related to Jenkins what Floyd Farley had told me about the original Best 18 and the selection of the 17th at Quail Creek. He didn’t remember much about it.
“Could have happened that way,” he said. “Sounds like me.”