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AT&T National: Ken Duke walks course as a champion for first time
Ray Duke’s feet barely touched the wet grass as he circled the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club on Thursday morning.
He has watched his son, Ken, play hundreds of rounds since Ken became a pro golfer in 1994, but this one was different. For the first time in 188 PGA Tour starts, and so many others on four developmental tours, Ken teed off with a PGA tournament victory to his name.
“I’m not near as nervous as I’d have been if he hadn’t had won,” Ray said after the round. “I’m more comfortable today.”
The same was true for Ken, who shot an even-par 71 on Thursday. He finished the first round tied for 28th behind leader Roberto Castro, who shot 5 under in the afternoon.
Duke won the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn., on Sunday on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff. At age 44, he became the second-oldest first-time winner on tour since 1970.
After he won, he shook a bottle of Coca-Cola on the course and sprayed it about as if it were champagne. Duke’s trainer has advised him to consume his favorite drink in moderation. The celebration, however, was decades in the making. The emotions after accomplishing a lifelong goal poured out — elation, pride and relief.
“Did I think I’d ever win? You just never know,” Duke said this week. “I mean, I thought I could, and I thought I was good enough to, but getting it done is a different story.”
Ray Duke shared his son’s doubt. Not about his son’s talent, but whether all the elements required for Ken to win would ever align for four days.
He watched Sunday’s playoff with his wife, Bettie, at their home in Arkadelphia, Ark. Ray paced in their den, scanning the television for measures of Ken’s mental toughness.
“Maturity and composure, you grow from all of that over the years of experience,” Ray said. “And he’s there.”
Ray and Bettie’s phone rang off the hook after Ken birdied to win. Ken, meanwhile, received a stream of congratulatory text messages. Among the senders: NBA greats Charles Barkley and Ray Allen and several country musicians, including Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts.
Ray, 72, was most satisfied by how Ken embodied patience — one of a golfer’s greatest virtues — in continuing to pursue victory on tour. But it’s even more remarkable that Ken was in position to compete at all.
He was diagnosed with scoliosis as a teenager. His spine curved right to left at 55 degrees, Ray recalled. The distortion put pressure on Ken’s lungs. Surgery was required to avoid serious health problems.
At age 15, he had a 16-inch rod inserted in his back, where it remains today. It straightened his spine, and he stood 3 inches taller after the procedure.
You’d never know Duke once had back problems by watching him walk the course. His biggest difficulty now is keeping up with the youngsters off the tee. He ranks 168th on tour in driving distance.
Duke averaged 288.5 yards Thursday. He consistently was behind his playing partners. Nick Watney, age 32, averaged 311 yards, and Billy Horschel, 26, averaged 308.
“I don’t hit it as far as some of these guys,” Duke said. “You’ve really got to hit it long and high here on this golf course.”
Still, Duke’s even-par score was his best in five rounds at Congressional in this event. He was relaxed, even during a poor start.
He bogeyed two of the first five holes, a span that included a 21-foot par save on No. 11. That didn’t deter him from walking along the ropes to converse with an old friend in the gallery.
“He’s a great guy, one of the best guys out on tour,” Horschel said. “For him to get that victory, you saw how much it meant to him. At the age of 44, who knows how many more chances at victory he has? Hopefully he does have a lot more, but obviously when you get up there in age, it does become a lot tougher.”
That’s why Sunday was so sweet for Ray. At least there won’t be so much tension when he walks the course with his son from now on.
“I don’t know that words can describe it,” Ray said. “It’s very gratifying to him to be able to win because even though you’re on the tour, if you haven’t won, mentally you really think, ‘I’m still not really a big part of that.’ But now that he’s won and all the players come up and shake hands and high five, aw, it’s just a confidence builder.”
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