Backspin: Duke's career filled with resiliency

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June 24, 2013
Brian Wacker,

CROMWELL, Conn. -- When Ken Duke was in seventh grade, he was diagnosed with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day.

His spine continued to curve, however, and two years later he underwent surgery and had a metal rod inserted in his back that’s still there today. Without the procedure, the pressure on his lungs could have become life-threatening.

A few months later he returned to his high school team and won medalist honors in a district tournament.

In other words, it’s been an uphill battle for Duke from the start.

He never gave up hope, though, which ironically is the name of the town in Arkansas where he was born. Not through stints on every tour imaginable, and not through 186 of them without a win on the PGA TOUR, until Sunday at the Travelers Championship.

When Duke started working with Bob Toski in 2006, Toski says Duke had very little knowledge not only of his golf swing but what he was doing on the Web.com Tour. He also aimed left but swung right and, as Toski says, wasn’t a very good putter.

“With my back problems he made me swing the golf club, it seemed like it was easier,” Duke said. “And no one's ever told me the way to swing the club.”

Duke was a self-made guy who would play at 6 or 7 in the morning before school because both his parents worked and that’s the best they could do at the time.

Toski, now 86 years old but still as sharp and tough as ever, turned out to be a perfect fit.

“He’s amazing,” Duke said. “I wouldn’t be here now if I would have never met him.

“He’s played with the best. He’s taught the best. He’s just a special guy.”

Which is exactly what Toski had to say about Duke’s win.

“Any time you win at 44 years of age, it’s special,” he said. “Because at that age, they’re writing you off.”

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“I got a lot of text messages, voicemails this week, but I got a text message from a guy named Joe Ford. He's the VP at Augusta, and he just doesn't send me text messages. I think I got it on Friday. That means I get to go back to Augusta.  So that's a big deal.” -- Ken Duke, who earned an invite to next year’s Masters with his win Sunday.

“I figured this is going to be either really, really bad or really, really good.” -- Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube when Justin Rose’s wife, Kate, called him following her husband’s U.S. Open victory. True to his commitment, Rose played in Cromwell.

“It feels like Phil never plays away. He always plays at home because it's just the fans are so for him.” -- Hunter Mahan on what it was like playing with Phil Mickelson in the final round of the U.S. Open.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@DukePGA: This has been an amazing ride, thanks to everyone for all the support, it means the world to me!!! -- Ken Duke after 186 career starts on his first win Sunday. Given his emotions after, you get the feeling it was awfully special for Duke.

@ChrisMannixSI: Heat fan walked past Jack Nicklaus. Says Hey your Arnold Palmer! Nicklaus says'No. But close.'Can't make this stuff up -- Only in Miami, only in Miami

@McIlroyRory: Nice of @BarackObama to mention me in his speech today in Belfast... But I think he should be helping me with my swing after last week! Haha -- McIlroy after Obama mentioned meeting McIlroy last year and some swing tips the Northern Irishman gave him

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Justin Rose finally hit a wall last week, and it came on Sunday when, within a shot of the lead, he missed a 5-foot par putt on the ninth hole. He never recovered and fell back to 13th, finishing six shots behind. “I was just a little clumsy today when I needed to be sharp,” Rose said on Sunday. “I think that probably shows more fatigue than anything. I'm still able to put one foot in front of the other. But I guess it's just that little bit of sharpness that I might be lacking.” Rose will play this week’s AT&T National, though says he doesn’t plan to play a practice round.

2. Bubba Watson didn’t blame his caddie for hitting it in the water on the 16th hole Sunday at the Travelers Championship. For one, Ted Scott, who has been on Watson’s bag for a long time, took full responsibility for it, saying he’d talked Watson into hitting a 9-iron even though Watson initially wanted to hit an 8-iron. For another, Watson defended Scott afterward and said they’d mis-clubbed, including himself as part of that equation.

3. Graham DeLaet is going to win very soon on the PGA TOUR. His chances slipped away with a bogey on the 16th hole Sunday, but he leads the TOUR in greens in regulation and is ninth in driving distance -- a good combination to have. It just comes down to experience. “I continue to build confidence and know that I belong out here and that I have what it takes to be in that playoff or be in the winning circle,” he said. “The more and more times that I'm here, it becomes easier and easier and I feel like my time's coming. It just hasn't quite been right yet.”

4. A couple of oddities from the Travelers Championship: Only one player, Phil Mickelson, has ever successfully defended at the event. Also, only once since the inception of the FedExCup Playoffs has the winner at TPC River Highlands not made it through all four Playoffs events and into the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. So Duke has that going for him, too, which is nice.

5. Will the U.S. Open go back to Merion? Who knows, but Hunter Mahan would like to see it return, although it sounds like under a slightly different setup. “The course is fine,” Mahan said. “Logistically, the USGA has a really tough challenge there. Just to fit players and fans in there and get tents and everything, it's a challenge for them. The course, obviously, was a big challenge and I think the USGA learned a lot about that golf course and how it could play and how they don't have to extend it and just let it be. It was so influenced by the USGA, I felt like we really didn't get to see its kind of true color there.”

6. Mahan, by the way, came out of Merion with a positive attitude, even though he didn’t win there playing from the final group. It certainly helped him at the Travelers Championship, where he was in contention again.

7. Stat of the Week I: Five of the last 11 Travelers Championships have been decided in a playoff and six of the last eight winners were first-time champions, including in each of the last four years. Seventeen players in all got their maiden win here, including Bob Toski 60 years ago.

8. Stat of the Week II: Duke is already the 10th first-time winner on TOUR this season, which is one more than all of last year. In 2011, there were 14 first-time winners.

9. Stat of the Week III: Watson has now held or shared the lead after 54 holes six times in his career. Only once has he gone on to win, in 2011 at New Orleans.

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
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Why didn’t Chris Stroud hit 3-wood off the tee to avoid being on a downhill lie on his third time playing 18 on Sunday? -- Tommy Fox

He thought about it, but simply didn’t think he’d end up in the same spot for a third straight time. "I thought the last one was further left, which would have been a lot better angle,” Stroud said. “If I'd have hit 3-wood and I'd have been further back, I might have been able to stop it. But I think I had a better chance from that 90-yard shot I had."

Does Justin Rose have the best swing in golf? -- Chad Shawger

Certainly one of them, Chad. But don’t take my word for it. “I think Justin technically is probably the best player in the game,” Hunter Mahan said last week. “I mean that from the putting to bunker game, short game, swing, everything he does is so -- it's definitely I think the best. It's just so flawless when you see him and watch him play, and he makes the game look really easy sometimes.”

Have a question for the mailbag? Send it to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com or via Twitter at @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK

The AT&T National will be without Tiger Woods, who pulled out of the tournament with an elbow injury last week. It’s a blow for Woods, who was coming off a disappointing finish at the U.S. Open. He has won this tournament before, and his foundation benefits from it. In terms of who is playing, Justin Rose and Adam Scott are both in the field, but I really like Jason Day’s chances. He finished second at the U.S. Open, already has five top-10s this season and a year ago tied for eighth at Congressional. It’s hard to believe Day has been stuck on one career win since 2010, but he’s playing too well for that not to change.

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