Hard work, patience pay off for Duke in maiden win

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Duke news conference after winning Travelers Championship

Following the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands, Ken Duke meets with the media and talks about his first win on the PGA TOUR.

June 23, 2013
Brian Wacker

CROMWELL, Conn. -- Bob Toski has played golf with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret, to name a few. Then there’s Hope, Ark., native Ken Duke.

Hope.

That’s what Duke has been hanging onto for the better part of three different decades that have spanned mini tours, PGA TOUR Canada, Asian Tour, South American Tour, Web.com Tour and now the PGA TOUR.

“You gotta believe in yourself in everything you do,” Duke said. “It's kind of one of those things once you finally do it, it might come easier the next time. That's kind of the way I feel.

“You have to be patient. You can't make things happen out here. You can't win by pushing everything.”

On Sunday at the Travelers Championship, after 187 starts on TOUR, Duke pushed himself all the way to his first career victory, defeating Chris Stroud on the second hole of sudden death.

“Any time you win at 44 years of age it’s a special win,” the 86-year-old still sharp-as-a-tack Toski says of his pupil. “Because at that age they’re writing you off.”

The funny thing is, even Toski, with whom Duke has worked with since 2006, nearly wrote the winner off.

 “I thought he was going to bogey the last hole and lose the tournament,” Toski groused. “But he played a good shot out of the rough to get the ball near the putting surface.”

Duke two-putted for par, only to watch from the scoring trailer as Chris Stroud chipped in minutes later to send the tournament to overtime.

When Duke emerged, he uttered, “Are you kidding me?”

Then Stroud passed, saying, “Got some more golf to play.”

Two extra holes later, and playing the 18th for a third time on Sunday, Duke ended it, however, sticking a wedge to 2 feet to set up the winning birdie.

It was the same shot that Duke starts his warm-up with on the range and one he felt comfortable with in the heat of the moment.

But Toski has seen it all in golf. He won 11 times -- including this event in 1953 when it was known as the Insurance City Open and played at nearby Wethersfield Country Club -- and has coached, among others, Tom Kite, Bruce Crampton and Judy Rankin. And he’d seen plenty of Duke the last seven years.

“He had no idea where he was aiming and no idea where he was swinging,” Toski says of Duke when Duke first visited him in South Florida. “When I met him, he had very little knowledge of what he was doing on TOUR.”

He’s come a long way since and it all came to fruition at the Travelers Championship, where he shot 65-66 on the weekend and made five birdies and one bogey on Sunday as he moved to 20th in the latest FedExCup standings.

When Toski called Duke on Sunday morning, he told him it was his time. He also told him he’d need to get to 14 under to win and that 13 under would likely get him in a playoff.

He was close. Duke and Stroud both finished at 12 under.

“There’s more to teaching golf than standing on the (bleep)ing tee and beating balls,” Toski growled. “You have to teach players how to go low and how to win. I told him if you don’t think you can go low, don’t tee the (bleep)ing thing up.”

Duke believed. It’s been that way ever since he holed out for a birdie from the rough on the 18th hole at Muirfield Village earlier this month. He went on to tie for 16th there.

“It seemed like from then on I feel like it was going my way,” Duke said. “And just getting it up-and-down a few times today and throughout the week, I just felt like, you know what, it might be time.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Fred Smith was working as a prison guard when he met Duke at a Boston Red Sox game in 2004.

Smith didn’t know Duke was a professional golfer but the two became fast friends when Smith traveled to the Deutsche Bank Championship that year with a T-shirt that read, “Ken Duke’s No. 1 fan.”

Since then, the group has grown to about nine members between friends and family with T-shirts that read "Team Duke."

Every year, Smith, now an events planner from Massachusetts, and the rest of the group, travel to the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Travelers Championship to cheer on their favorite player.

Duke even called Smith into the scoring trailer to watch the end of regulation.

As the tournament went into a playoff, someone from the group shouted, “There’s still hope!”

Even in the darkest of times, Duke always felt the same.

Whether it was when he was diagnosed with scoliosis as a teenager and had to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day, or when he underwent surgery two years later and had a metal rod inserted in his back before earning medalist honors in a district tournament for his high school team just two months after the procedure.

Or when he was spanning the globe trying to get to where he is now.

“Some people make it, some people don't,” he said. “Most of the time you go out and play with your buddies, you try to have fun. And I've taken that to this level here. No question, that's kept me going."

In their own small way people like Smith, who have cheered and supported Duke through it all, also have.

Duke got more than his first win on Sunday. He also earned a spot in next year’s Masters, where he'll play for just the second time.

"I got a text message from a guy named Joe Ford," Duke said. "He's the VP at Augusta, and he just doesn't send me text messages. I think I got it on Friday, when I finished. That means I get to go back to Augusta. So that's a big deal."

Guess who plans to be there when he tees it up at Augusta National next April?

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