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Long wait was worth it

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nineteen years as a pro and 187 events on the PGA Tour, not to mention a tough childhood battling a tough spine disease, steeled Ken Duke for the shot of his life last weekend.

He was in the second hole of a playoff against Chris Stroud in the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, and launched an approach shot to within 21/2 feet of the par-4 18th hole. He tapped in for birdie after Stroud missed a much longer putt.

At age 44, Duke - who'll be teeing it up next week at the Greenbrier Classic - is one of the oldest, most-traveled first-time winners in Tour history. Conversing with him, you sense the steadiness that allowed him to land the perfect shot under pressure after all those years.

"It took a little extra time because the wind was gusting," Duke said. "I just wanted to make sure a gust didn't get me because I missed one earlier in the week, on Friday on a hole that's sort of like that. Just wanted to calm my nerves and just say, 'It's your turn to do it,' and just back it in.

"[I'm] just excited, relieved, finally ended up winning, that's the main thing."

A graduate of Henderson State in Arkadelphia, Ark., Duke turned pro in 1994 and made the then-Nationwide Tour for the 1995 season. That didn't go so well, as he missed the cut in 16 of 21 events.

The coming years were a whirlwind of multiple tours - Asian, South American, Canadian, any number of mini-tours. He said his last thought about bailing on the sport was about 2001, a lost year in his media guide section.

He found his way in 2006, when he led the Nationwide Tour's money list. He made the Tour Championship in 2008, the top-30 level that earned him berths in four majors and then some for the coming year.

But he flamed out in 2009 and, without a tournament-victory exemption, he went back to the Nationwide for 2010. In 2011, his No. 7 finish there won him a trip back to the big tour.

Duke was solid in 2012, making 22 of 30 cuts with six top-10 finishes, including a tie for seventh in the Greenbrier Classic. He confirmed his plans to return next week in an interview from the AT&T National in Bethesda, Md., where he shot an even-par 71 in the first round Thursday.

"I had a good season going into the Greenbrier," he said. "Never been there before, heard so much about it. My wife and I will come back there, and we're so excited about it."

Perhaps his battle with scoliosis contributed to his patience through the ups and downs of his golf career. He was diagnosed as a seventh-grader; two years later, he had surgery to correct a 51 percent curvature of his spine.

Surgeons attached a 16-inch metal rod to facilitate strengthening and he returned to his golf team only months later. Playing in a back brace, he adapted his swing well enough to win medalist honors at a district tournament.

"I just learned a certain way because of that," Duke said. "It's just part of the way I swing."

In 2009, he hooked up with legendary swing coach Bob Toski - in fact, he lists his biggest thrill as playing a round at Augusta National with Toski, then 82.

With an altered swing, he ebbed but has rebounded well enough to win his first event, thus adding a dose of excitement for Greenbrier Classic officials. Duke reports receiving a few text messages from White Sulphur Springs.

And a few hundred others.

"It was just a great relief to get it off my shoulders, at my age," he said.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

 


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