Even the most cynical person had to find it somewhat cruel Sunday when Palm City, Fla., resident Ken Duke was poised to win his first PGA Tour event at the advanced age of 44 — until Chris Stroud chipped in from off the 18th green to force an unlikely playoff at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn.
It wasn’t cruel — it was fitting.
After all the hazards Duke has had to negotiate in life — starting when he was diagnosed with scoliosis in seventh grade and had to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day, an injury that eventually required surgery two years later to place a metal rod in his back; playing in so many mini-tours in remote regions of the world he lost count; losing his PGA Tour playing card twice — what’s the big deal about having to play two more holes before enjoying that breakthrough victory?
It only made that moment more deliciously special. When Duke’s 2-foot birdie putt found the hole and he could celebrate his first victory in 187 starts on the PGA Tour, the sheer joy on his face was undeniable. Not even Stroud’s unexpected chip-in could get in the way.
“I just told myself it’s my turn,” Duke said.
That was the message his instructor, Bob Toski, had preached to Duke when they spoke by phone before the final round. Duke knew Toski had won the same event 60 years ago for his first of 11 PGA Tour titles, so there was already built-in karma. All Duke had to do was something he had never done before.
Win on the PGA Tour.
Sure, there was a little luck involved — when Duke’s errant shot to the 10th green ricocheted off a tree and landed 5 feet from the cup. Not only do winners get good bounces like that, they make the birdie putt. Duke pointed to the tree afterward as a show of thanks.
“You need breaks like that every once in a while,” Duke said.
But more than anything, Duke needed Toski.
They are quite a pair, Duke the aging veteran and Toski, nearly twice his age at 86, a Hall of Fame teacher and former player who has forgotten more about the golf swing than most pros have learned. They get along like a marriage, which is to say they have had their ups and downs.
It started in early 2006 when Duke ran into Toski at a golf outing in South Florida and mentioned how he was struggling. ”Come see me,” Toski said, and Duke did. Boy, did he need to.
”Ken had no idea what he was doing with his golf swing, and he had no idea what he was doing on the golf course,” Toski says, as blunt as a 2-iron. ”I taught him how to win. I taught him how to shoot low numbers under pressure. I taught him how to play golf and not just stand on the bleeping range all day, beating balls.”
Toski taught, and Duke learned. He finished first on the Web.com money list in 2006, earning himself a second try on the PGA Tour. Duke cashed in, using three second-place finishes the next two years to earn more than $4.1 million.
Duke had arrived. Or so it seemed.
By the end of 2009, he was lost again, having to return to the Web.com Tour after finishing 158th on the 2009 money list. For while, Duke and Toski stopped working together, Toski making it very clear who made that decision.
”He got rich and started to not pay attention to his golf game,” Toski said. ”We stopped working because the patient didn’t want to see the doctor anymore. The doctor can’t go see the patient. He came back to me because he was desperate.”
Duke resurrected his career when he won the final event on the 2011 Web.com Tour to secure his PGA Tour card yet again. He kept it last year by finishing 57th and, after Sunday’s heroics, has no such concerns for the next 21/2 seasons.
The spoils are immediate: He’s in this year’s British Open and next year’s Masters, having played in both major championships just once. He gets into the World Golf Championships, the FedExCup playoffs, the invitational events and next year’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions. This victory will carry Duke all the way to the Champions Tour.
Toski is predicting even more.
”I think he’ll win a major now,” Toski said. ”He has enough confidence. He’s no longer a journeyman. He’s a winner, and that’s not easy to do that when you’re 44 and everybody is writing you off.”
Duke knew Toski still believed in him, maybe more than he believed in himself.
”I wouldn’t be here now if I would have never met him,” Duke said. ”No one’s ever told me the way to swing the club. I mean, the guy has played with (Ben) Hogan and (Sam) Snead and (Jimmy) Demaret and all of them. He’s just a special guy.”
And it takes a special person to show the resilience Duke has demonstrated the last two decades. Maybe it’s appropriate he was born in Hope, Ark., because for a while, hope was about all he had.
Now he has that first big trophy and the distinction of being the second-oldest first-time winner on the PGA Tour. (That honor goes to Ed Dougherty, who was 47 when he won the Deposit Guaranty Classic in 1995).
It might have taken Duke two decades and two holes longer than he planned, but he proved Sunday he can perform when he absolutely needed to. Kind of makes the journey less bumpy.
”I signed up to play this game for a living in 1994,” Duke said. ”Obviously you don’t know how it’s going to work out. And some people make it, some people don’t. But I’ve always just believed in myself.”
Craig Dolch is a Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers correspondent with more than 30 years of golf writing experience.
Ken Duke profile
Ken Duke moves to No. 20 in the FedExCup standings with 842 points. Duke’s best career finish in the FedExCup was No. 22 in 2008 when he made his only appearance in the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola.
Duke’s 1st PGA Tour victory comes in his 187th Tour start at the age of 44 years, 4 months and 25 days.
Duke wins in his fifth start at the Travelers Championship: 2013/Win, 2012/T47, 2009/MC, 2008/T27 and 2004/T49. Six of the last eight winners of the Travelers Championship have been first-time Tour champions — J.J. Henry (2006), Hunter Mahan (2007), Bubba Watson (2010), Fredrik Jacobson (2011), Marc Leishman (2012) and Ken Duke (2013).
There have been 17 players who have picked up their first Tour win at the Travelers Championship: Ken Duke (2013), Marc Leishman (2012), Fredrik Jacobson (2011), Bubba Watson (2010), Hunter Mahan (2007), J.J. Henry (2006), Brent Geiberger (1999), Olin Browne (1998), Stewart Cink (1997), Billy Ray Brown (1991), Mark Brooks (1988), Mac O’Grady (1986), Phil Blackmar (1985), Tim Norris (1982), Don Bies (1975), Charles Sifford (1967) and Bob Toski (1953).
Ken Duke at the 2013 Travelers Championship: (Category Figures/Percentage Rank) Driving Accuracy 44 of 56 (78.6 percent) T10; Driving Distance 274.3 yards T59; Greens in Regulation 45 of 72 (62.5 percent) T62; Strokes Gained Putting 4.812 10; Total Putts 106 2
Duke is the 10th first-time winner on Tour this season. Last year there were nine first-time winners on Tour and 14 in 2011.