Ken Duke: Far From The Madding Crowd

When I first saw the field list of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, I noticed that Ken Duke was third alternate. And because Phoenix is such a popular stop, I didn’t think he would get in. I was wrong. Fred Couples called in sick and Duke was in.

Once the tee times for Thursday are set, whenever somebody withdraws, the alternate takes his place on the tee sheet. And this week that meant that Duke was thrown into the meat grinder of a marquee pairing with Kyle Stanley, the “tragic” loser last week in La Jolla, and Bud Cauley, only the sixth player to ever go from college to the PGA Tour without going to Q-School. (He managed to secure a number of starts through sponsors’ exemptions and made enough money to exceed the 125th guy on the money list.)

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 this year.

So as I said, it has been a long journey for Duke, punctuated with all the ups and downs that go with playing professional golf. That’s why I was so interested in how he would do in the limelight that was Couple’s original slot.

Since Couples was the first guy in the tee time, that meant that Duke was first up on Thursday morning. Talk about being thrown into the fire. But when I interviewed him after his third round today, he said he didn’t really care who he played with.

But sure enough, on the par 4, sharp dogleg right 10th hole, Duke hit it into the left rough. That is to say, the outside radius of the dogleg rather than the inside radius. Oh, geez.

But if nothing else, Ken Duke has been at this long enough that he is a tough, grizzled Tour veteran who is not fazed by his ball being in the rough on the wrong side of the hole. But my respect for him really jumped with what happened next: he was the only one to birdie the hole.

“Yeah, that’s just me. I just don’t give up. I’ve shot 2 or 3 under on the front and 3 or 4 under on the back. And that’s just me. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t worry about it. I feel good, I feel good about my game, I feel good about playing out here and it doesn’t really matter who I’m playing with. I’ve been [through this] many times and it’s no different than playing at home.”

But then he turned right around and made three bogeys in a row. But, consistent with my point about what a player this guy is, he cleaned all three of them up with matching birdies by the turn to his back nine.

“I’ve gotten better. I’ve started exercising, getting better that way. My game is close to where it used to be. This is what I love to do, I just love to play the game.” And to punctuate his commitment to getting better, he works with the legendary teacher, Bob Toski.

“Did your game slip for some reason?”

“Not really, I don’t think I was consistent enough. Sure I had some great years, but I just don’t think I was to that next level where I need to be.”

“I just try to relax as much as I can and have fun and try not to put too much pressure on myself. That’s pretty hard to do out there because you want it so bad sometimes. Just have fun out there and take what the course gives you. And sometimes you get on a little roll and start running out there and just let it go.”

So anything in particular after a bogey?

“Not really. Most of the time you “bounce back” and make a birdie. And sometimes a bogey wakes you up a little bit and gets you a little more focused so sometimes it’s good.”

Phoenix is famous of course for it’s par 3 16th hole turned into a coliseum. I wasn’t able to go through that gauntlet with him because there were large lines at that time of day, but I could hear the birdie roars from halfway down the 17th hole. Billy Mayfair made the first birdie and then Duke made birdie on top of him.

He said that Ian Poulter really got the crowd going today, so it was “pretty good.” Meaning the decibel level was pretty high when they were hitting their tee shots.

“So how do you play in the noise of the 16th hole? Is it just all white noise?”

“Yeah, one voice is different, but a bunch of them, it’s not a big deal.”

He says that he plans to get into 25 to 30 events this year.

“So you have a chance.”

“Yeah, for sure.”

And after watching him for the better part of all three of his first rounds, I gotta go with the Tour pro. I think he’s right.

Ken Duke, Palm City, Florida, PGA Tour pro. It’s who he is.

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