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.”
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.