Ken Duke: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

After 187 attempts, 44-year-old, Ken Duke finally won his first PGA Tour event at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Connecticut. The TPC River Highlands is in southern suburb of Cromwell. It was an exciting, two-hole playoff with Chris Stroud.

I first became a fan of Ken Duke when I interviewed him at the 2012 Waste Management Phoenix Open in “Ken Duke: Far From The Madding Crowd.” He had gotten into the tournament as a 3rd alternate when Fred Couples withdrew and played impressively: there was no doubt that he was a centered, self-confident, philosophical Tour pro. And as I detailed in that post, it had been a long time coming; his determination is almost unbelievable: 

Duke is the quintessential journeyman Tour pro. He started playing the Nike Tour (now the Nationwide Tour) back in 1995 and it was a brutal introduction to high-caliber professional golf. He played in 22 events and made 5 cuts and a total of $3,000. But once you get a taste of it, get a sense of what you’re up against and believe that you can handle it, your focus gets tighter and your certainty that you can do it grows stronger.

But in Duke’s case, it took him until 2003 before he had a promising year. He played in 26 events, made 19 cuts and had 3 top 10s including a 2nd. But better yet, he finished T12 at Q-School and earned his first PGA Tour card for 2004. But $300,000 in earnings wasn’t enough to keep his card and he was back on the Nationwide in 2005 and 2006. The latter turned out to be a great year, including his first win and propelled him back to the big Tour again in 2007.

And finally all of that patient, hard work paid off; he made $1.9 million and in 2008, he had his best year on Tour earning $2.2 million. But he slipped to $.38 million in 2009 and missed retaining his card at Q-School by one: he finished T26.

Because he still had some status on the Tour in 2010, he split time between a handful of Tour events and a basketful of Nationwide events. But that got him back to the Nationwide in 2011 where he ended the season by winning the Nationwide Tour championship and earning a card on the big tour again for [2012].

It’s important to have this perspective to understand just what a huge win this was for this man.

You gotta believe in yourself in everything you do.  That’s why those guys at the top are winning week in, week out because they believe they can do it.  It’s kind of one of those things once you finally do it it might come easier the next time.  And that’s kind of the way I feel.

His thoughts immediately went to his mentor, the legendary player and golf teacher, Bob Toski. To give you a sense of Toski’s place in the game, my coach, the late Jim Flick, counted Toski as his mentor and spoke of him frequently:

I owe a lot to Bob Toski.  I met him in 2006.  He won his first tournament up here in ’53 at Wethersfield, and he called me this morning and said “it’s your time too.”

And as Duke sat there on the media center dais digesting what he always knew would happen for him, his mind went to why it had happened:

You have to be patient.  You can’t make things happen out here.  You can’t win by pushing everything.  You just have to be patient.  And that’s kind of the way I live life.  I’m an easy-going kind of guy, just kind of go-with-the-flow kind of guy, and that’s the way I play golf.

As I said, he’s a philosophical man. But he’s also a very experienced player who knows himself and his mind. Crouched in the rough as he was reading the other side of the 2-foot birdie putt that would vindicate all of the years of hard work, he lowered his head and took a few moments to think about how he was going to get that putt in the hole:

I just needed to settle down a little bit.  I had the same putt in regulation, just a little left-to-right if any.  And I told myself it’s my turn.  There’s no reason why you can’t just knock this in.  Just slow down just a little bit and knock it in.  And that’s what I did.

Stroud tied him in regulation with an improbable 51-foot chip shot from across the back of the green that rolled right into the dead center of the pin and dropped in:

I’ve lost tournaments by somebody chipping in on the last hole like that or making a long putt and beating me, I mean probably six or seven times.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.

On the second playoff hole, Stroud had a 25-foot birdie putt that just fell off the line and below the hole. It was tantalizingly close. But that gave Duke his 2-foot opportunity of a career:

You are always going to think that that person is going to make the putt and I knew if he didn’t it’s my turn to win it.  I just kind of told myself after it went by, it’s my turn.  It’s been a long time.

Now having won the same tournament as his mentor, Duke was asked about the nature of the relationship he has with Bob Toski. And in laying that out, it was still more interesting to discover that his hardscrabbled history goes all the way back to his childhood:

Yeah.  It’s special.  I’ve never really taken a lot of lessons, growing up with not a lot in Arkansas.  My mom and dad did what they had to do.  They had to work for a living.  And I had to do what I had to do.  I had to practice at 6 or 7 in the morning before I went to school and just do that.

But got down to Florida and ended up meeting Mr.Toski.  He said, “come see me.”  So I went to see him in 2006 in January.  And with my back problems he made me swing the golf club, it seemed like it was easier.  And no one’s ever told me the way to swing the club.

I mean just — I mean the guy has played with Hogan and Snead and Demaret and all of them.  And sometimes I go down to his place, and we just talk.  You know, we might not even hit any balls. And had a great session with him last week on Wednesday and I was swinging really good.

And you know, the way he says things, it might all be the same, but it seems like it’s different every time we talk and every time we’re on the range.  And that’s the knowledge of somebody like that, because he’s played with the best.  He’s taught the best.  He’s amazing.  And I wouldn’t be here now if I would have never met him.  He’s just a special guy.

Fittingly, he had a couple of providential birdies early on the back nine. On the 10th, he pulled a pitching wedge into a greenside tree and it spit it out leaving him a short birdie putt.

It was going left.  It hit the tree…  I don’t know how it kicked back.  You know, I’ve seen stuff like that happen before, you know, when you don’t expect it and ended up making the putt which was great…  You need breaks like that every once in a while.

And later he made a 45-foot bomb that broke left-to-right the whole way down to the hole and then bent left and into the hole on the last roll:

It was a tough putt, and it broke left-to-right and all the way down there and somehow it was losing speed and I was hoping it would just stop right by the hole.  It was so scary, get a little firm there and it can go right off the green.  And next thing you know it moved back to the left and went in.

Something like that you need — I feel like the whole year has been that way.  I haven’t really had anything happen.  I’ve played pretty well, but I’ve never had anything happen, you know, something like that to go.

I’ve holed one a few weeks ago at Memorial, No. 18 from the rough.  And it seemed like from then on I feel like it was going my way.

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.

Might be time, indeed. At long, long last, it was his time.

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