We all love to see stories of those who have overcome obstacles and have succeeded in their profession. That is the case of Henderson State alum Ken Duke.
Duke’s perseverance and patience to achieve his goal of being a professional golfer is one movie scripts are made of.
Duke’s story began growing up in Arkadelphia where he was diagnosed with scoliosis. For years, Duke had to deal with excruciating back pain, having to wear a brace for 23 hours a day.
Despite wearing the brace, Duke’s spine continued to curve. Two years after his diagnosis, he underwent surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock to have a 16-inch Herrington metal rod inserted in his back which remains to this day. Without the procedure, the pressure on his lungs could have become life-threatening.
Duke returned to school just two weeks following the procedure. The avid golfer was also anxious to return to the golf course. It wasn’t long before he was practicing daily for hours before and after school.
Incredibly, Duke won medalist honors at the district tournament playing the entire tournament wearing a back brace. In 1987, he was the Arkansas High School Medalist at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock.
Duke decided to stay close to home and continue his education and playing career at Henderson State University. Duke led the Reddies to four straight Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference titles and was a four-time AIC Golfer of the Year. In 1992, he earned NAIA All-American honors.
Duke turned professional in 1994 and, in 1996, he became the first Reddie to play in a PGA event participating in the Greater Vancouver Open.
Over the next several years, Duke spent time on several tours including the Canadian Tour, the South African Tour, the Asian Tour and the Web.com Tour.
In 2006, Duke was the leading money-winner on the Web.com Tour (formerly Nationwide Tour) and was named the Player of the Year.
He spent the next three years on the PGA TOUR with his best season coming in 2008 when he recorded five top 10 finishes and 13 top 25 finishes.
Duke lost his PGA TOUR Card following the 2009 season and returned to the Nationwide Tour.
Duke was determined to get back to the PGA TOUR, and to do so he would need a strong finish in the 2011 Nationwide Tour Championship.
On the outside looking in before the start of the season’s final event, Duke was 37th on the money list. He knew he needed a strong showing to jump into “THE 25”, and he did just that, shooting a 10-under par, 278 at the Daniel Island Club to win the final event of the season. He earned $180,000 for the win, and jumped all the way from 36th to 7th on THE 25, securing his PGA TOUR for the 2012 season.
In 2012, Duke finished 42nd in the FedEX Cup Standings, having six top 10 finishes and was 57th on the PGA TOUR money list.
There was still one thing missing from Duke’s resume’, a win on the PGA TOUR.
Duke got off to a slow start to begin 2013 making two of seven cuts before finishing eighth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, collecting $167,400.
After a rough May where he made just one of four cuts, Duke finished 16th at the Memorial Tournament to earn $93,000.
It was at Muirfield where Duke regained his confidence and began believing again that he could win. In the second round, Duke holed out for a birdie from the rough on the 18th hole.
“I really felt that is when things began to come together for me,” Duke said. “I haven’t had anything happen for me this year. I played pretty well, but just couldn’t get the big break. It seemed when I holed out on 18 at The Memorial things started going my way.”
Things did happen for the 44-year-old as he excited not only those in Arkansas but the entire golf world by winning his first PGA event at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn. Duke was the oldest first-time winner on the PGA Tour since Ed Dougherty, who was 47 years old when he won the 1995 Deposit Guaranty Classic.
“I didn’t realize how many people were rooting for me,” said Duke after winning for the first-time in 187 PGA events. “I was overwhelmed by the support I received and I am very fortunate.”
Duke’s first win didn’t come easy. He benefitted from a big break on the 10th hole in the final round when his ball ricocheted off a tree and onto the green to about 5 feet from the pin, allowing him to make birdie.
After a 17-foot birdie putt on the next hole, he made a 45-footer on the 13th hole, a shot that looked as though it might go past the hole to the right, before falling in.
He battled Bubba Watson for the lead down the back nine, until the former Masters champion found trouble on the 16th.
Duke finished the final round with a par and was in the club house with a one-stroke lead over Chris Stroud.
Watching from the scoring trailer, Duke witnessed Stroud chipping in from 50-feet minutes later to send the tournament to a playoff.
Again, it couldn’t have been scripted any better as the two professionals continued to excite the crowd matching shot-for-shot the next two holes.
On the first playoff hole, Duke narrowly missed sinking a long birdie putt to win the tournament. Stroud managed to sink a testy 10-foot putt to salvage par and send the tournament to a second extra hole.
Playing the 18th for a third time on that final day, Duke stuck a wedge-shot to within two-feet to set up the winning birdie. The crowd quickly erupted chanting the word “DUKE” as the namesake walked up the fairway.
After collecting his composure, Duke stood over the short putt and with a solid stroke became the 2013 Travelers Champion.
"It's been a long time," said Duke." I've been on the Canadian Tour, the mini tours, Asian Tour, South American Tour, all of them; and it's just great to be a part of this big family on the PGA TOUR."
Following his win, fans of golf rewarded Duke by voting him as the PGA Player of the Month. Duke received 50 percent of the vote and Avis donated $50,000 in Duke’s name to the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute at UAMS.
Duke credits much of his success to PGA professional and mentor Bob Toski, who he met in 2006.
“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.”
The 86-year-old Toski won 11 times on the PGA TOUR including winning 1953 Insurance City Open known today at the Travelers Championship. Toski has coached, among others, Tom Kite, Bruce Crampton and Judy Rankin.
Duke learned both the physical and mental aspects of the game from Toski.
“There would be times we wouldn’t even hit balls,” said Duke. “We would often just sit and talk about the game, tell stories or just visit. He is someone special to me and I will always have him to thank.”
Duke’s off-the-course work may be even more impressive. The native of Hope, Ark., spends a great deal of time with charitable organizations. He often visits local children’s hospitals, attends First-Tee Events, and will meet with children of all ages prior to a tournament offering encouragement and support by sharing his story.
“Ken Duke is a great guy, plain and simple,” said former Henderson Sports Information Director and longtime friend Steve Eddington. “He's humble. He's sincere. He is serious about what he does, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. More than any other person I know, though, Ken is a competitor, in the truest sense. He has battled and fought to get where he is, from a career standpoint, through sheer will and determination. He's gotten a few breaks along the way, obviously (like meeting and forming an almost immediate connection with Bob Toski) but Ken has made his own breaks more often than not. To get where he is, from where he came, is almost unbelievable.”
For several years Duke returned to Arkansas to host the “A Day With The Duke” golf tournament in Arkadelphia as well as the “Ken Duke Charity Classic” in Little Rock.
"Ken's an incredible ambassador for Arkadelphia, the entire state of Arkansas and, obviously, the Reddie Spirit,” said Eddington. “Maybe that's what was in his pocket that day when he won!"
Duke, who is one of the most-liked players on the PGA TOUR, received several text messages following his win in Connecticut from numerous people including the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Charles Barkley, Miami Heat shooting guard Ray Allen, members of Rascal Flats and fellow golfers who also shared their message of congratulations.
Brandt Snedeker: “Congrats to “the godfather” for his first PGA tour win. We all knew you could, just glad you finally realized it old man!”
Justin Rose: “Congrats on the win bud! Really pleased for you.”
Bob Toski: “Hey Ken Duke, TravelersChamp – See you at the Masters.”
Greg Norman: “Congrats on a well-deserved and warranted victory.”
Ian Poulter: “Congrats to Ken on winning his first PGATour Win at the age of 44. That’s pretty cool. Enjoy.”
John Daly: “Congrats to my friend Ken Duke one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”
Since his win, Duke has played in several major events. He made the cut in both the British Open and the PGA Championship as well as competing in the FedEX Cup playoffs. He will begin the 2014 schedule by playing in the Tournament of Champions as well as being part of the field in the Master’s.
Duke, who was inducted into the Reddie Hall of Honor in 1999, has another big event on his schedule as he will be inducted into the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame on October 24, returning to Pleasant Valley Country Club a place where it all began.
“AN EVENING WITH THE DUKE”
Another exciting event for the 2013 Traveler's Champion will be a special fundraising event "An Evening With The Duke" which will take place Oct. 22 at the First Tee of Little Rock beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Proceeds from this special event will help with the construction of the Ken Duke Golf Center at Henderson State University.
The building of the Ken Duke Golf Center has been a dream of the HSU golf program and Ken. Thus far, over $230,000 has been raised with an additional pledge being made for $100,000.
Henderson will be the only Division II school in the country with an indoor stand-alone golf facility.
The facility will have indoor bays to hit out onto the range, a player's lounge and study area, offices for the coaches, an indoor short game chipping and putting area and an indoor hitting bay with swing monitoring equipment.
The facility will also have a driving range and part of the range will be open to the public.
Major donors who pledge $25,000 or more will have their names on a plaque inside the facility.
A goal of $800,000 has been set to construct the center.
For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Carrie Roberson at 870-230-5518.