THE INTERVIEW: Ken Duke

THE INTERVIEW Fall 2017
Ken Duke, PGA Tour

It’s only fitting that PGA Tour veteran Ken Duke was born in Hope, Arkansas. Given the obstacles the former golf journeyman has faced en route to becoming a PGA Tour winner, words like hope, not to mention courage and perseverance, have come in handy during what has been anything but an ordinary road to the big Tour. Since age 15, Duke, now 48, has played golf with a rod running from his shoulder blade to his tail bone to correct Scoliosis. Before surgery in 1985, his spine was at 72 degrees. Rod insertion set it back to 38 degrees. Then it was game on for the talented golfer, who has compiled an impressive golf CV to accompany his amazing story of hope. Duke played his college golf at Division II Henderson State University, where he 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 honours. After turning professional in 1994, Duke bounced around the world playing mini-tours and on the Asian Tour, South American Tour, and the Canadian Tour. In 1999, he won twice on the Canadian Tour (now Mackenzie Tour PGA TOUR Canada), and topped the year-end Order of Merit – he was the Tour’s first Order of Merit winner.  Duke first played on what was then the Nike Tour in 1995 and qualified for the PGA Tour in 2004, but failed to keep his card and returned to the Nationwide Tour. In 2006 he finished at the top of the Nationwide Tour money list and won the BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs, which regained his playing rights on the PGA Tour for 2007. On June 23, 2013, in his 187th start and after three runner-up finishes in his career, Duke broke through to win his first event on the PGA Tour at the Traveler’s Championship. He beat Chris Stroud with a birdie on the second extra hole of a sudden-death playoff. Those who watched Duke win that day remember the overwhelming joy he expressed after finally becoming a winner on the PGA Tour. Duke overcame other injuries suffered in 2016, when he couldn’t walk due to plantar fasciitis, and experienced pain from a sore wrist. But he has overcome those injuries. “I have so many people pulling for me,” Duke said. “I’m lucky I have my life.” Today, living with his wife, Michelle, in Palm City, Florida, Duke is father to Ashleigh, 14, and Lauren, 12. With the Freedom 55 Financial Championship around the corner, Duke spent some time chatting with LondonOntarioSports.com editor Jeffrey Reed about being a winner on the Canadian Tour, and what it takes to reach the next level on the Web.com Tour. Here’s the interview.

Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com: Ken, you are one of the poster boys for journeymen golfers. And on top of that, you have beaten incredible odds while living with Scoliosis. You turned professional in 1994, after playing NCAA Division II golf at Henderson State University in your home state of Arkansas, where you led the Reddies to four straight conference titles. Then you bounced around mini tours, and around Asia, South America, and finally the Canadian Tour where you won that Tour’s first Order of Merit title in 1999. You were the Nationwide Tour’s Player of the Year in 2006. And then came your big win at Traveler’s Championship in 2013, when you beat Chris Stroud in a playoff. What kept you going all of those years, before finally getting your PGA Tour card, and then winning on the big Tour? Because missing one putt each day for four days can make the difference between giving up the game, and winning on the PGA Tour. There’s a fine line.
Ken Duke:  Golf is an individual sport, so it’s all up to you. No one else can win for you. And I like that about golf. Obviously, you need to get a few breaks, and you need a little bit of luck. But it’s all about being confident in what you’re doing out on the golf course. That’s what kept me going.

Photo Courtesy Ken Duke

Reed: When you won the Canadian Tour – now Mackenzie Tour PGA TOUR Canada – Order of Merit in 1999, how were you physically? Were there any physical challenges you had to overcome that year?
Duke: None. I had surgery in 1985, so I’ve been lucky throughout the years. But when I look back at ’99, I was just was a lot more consistent than everyone else. And when you’re consistent, your confidence grows. Then you can just concentrate on hitting good shots, one at a time. That’s a good thing when you’re in this business (laughing).
Reed: So much has been written about the ‘six inches between the ears’ making or breaking a professional golf career. Having interviewed professional athletes in every sport, I can say unequivocally that professional golfers are the most mentally strong athletes in the world. Confidence, and focusing – ‘clearing the mechanism,’ to borrow a phrase from the movie, For Love Of The Game – are the names of the game when it comes to golf.
Duke:  Correct. And you get confidence through practicing long hours. You have to put in your time in order to be confident out on the course during a tournament. You have to believe in yourself. That’s where it all starts.
Reed: ‘Finding it in the dirt,’ to borrow a phrase from Ben Hogan.
Duke: Exactly. That’s where it all starts. The quicker you can do that as a professional golfer, then the faster you’re going to get results.
Reed: With a rod attached to your spine, have you been limited in the time you can spend beating balls at the range?
Duke: It has restricted my back swing more than anything. That’s why I have a shorter back swing than more of a parallel swing.

Ken Duke holds the Traveler’s Championship trophy. Photo courtesy Ken Duke.

Reed: I live with numerous spinal deformaties, all of which have resulted in a recognizable yet effective home-made swing (laughing).
Duke: You do what you need to do, right? But in terms of me practicing, I do practice, but not for hours like Vijay Singh, for example. Bending over putting for two or three hours at a time I think would hurt anybody’s back. I don’t do that. You just put your time in, work on what you think you need to work on, and move on. But to answer your question, no, my back doesn’t restrict me from doing all the practice things that I want to do, or wanted to do over the years.
Reed: In less than two weeks, the top 60 players on the Mackenzie Tour PGA TOUR Canada will come to London’s Highland Country Club for the Freedom 55 Financial Championship. There are Web.com Tour cards on the line, plus opportunities to qualify for the Web.com Tour. Speak from experience, if you will: what will be running through their heads? A lot of them are youngsters, with a mix of veterans still trying to grab the brass ring. When it’s all on the line come Sunday at Highland, what’s running through their minds? You’ve been there.
Duke: Let’s go back. The way I look at it is, has there been a good plan the last few weeks leading up to the championship? How have I played leading up to the last tournament? Have I had a few good weeks, or have I been struggling?

“Bending over putting for two or three hours at a time I think would hurt anybody’s back. I don’t do that. You just put your time in, work on what you think you need to work on, and move on.” – Ken Duke

Reed: Getting back to the confidence factor.
Duke: Precisely. If I’ve been struggling, I would probably be a little bit more nervous. But if I’ve been playing really well or consistently, then I would feel very confident going into Highland. It will be a big deal for those guys. I’m not sure how many of them have been to the Web.com or the PGA Tour …
Reed: Very few.
Duke: … but no matter what, how you come into the tournament is something to consider. But you know, the beauty of golf now is there are so many opportunities to get to the Web.com Tour, including the Mackenzie Tour. It’s all about status. Once you get status on the Web.com or the PGA Tour, it makes a world of difference.
Reed: And then once you get there, anything can happen if you keep elevating your game.
Duke: Right. But only a few of the guys who make it to Highland will play their way in, practice, finish with a good year, make the Top 5 and keep moving forward.

Photo courtesy Ken Duke

Reed: Exactly. The Tour’s ‘Who’s Next?’ slogan applies to only a select few. For all of the success stories, including Mackenzie Hughes, Nick Taylor and Mike Weir, for example, there are countless more stories which did not end in success on the golf course. Even Weir took six stabs at securing his PGA Tour card – and he almost gave up the game. That’s the more common story when it comes to professional golf. Let’s switch gears and talk about modern golf equipment. How has that changed the game, and concurrently the mentality of, say, a Mackenzie Tour golfer now compared to when you played in the late-1990s.
Duke: There’s not much shot making involved anymore.

“Only a few of the guys who make it to Highland will play their way in, practice, finish with a good year, make the Top 5 and keep moving forward.” – Ken Duke

Reed: Bomb and gauge. We’ll see it at the venerable Highland, where only the greens can protect the course and the scores.
Duke: Technology has changed the game forever. You hit it as far as you can hit it. These young guys can hit it a long way. They just get it on the green and hope for a hot putter. That’s the sad part about the way the game has gone, because there’s not much shot making involved anymore. All of these kids on the Mackenzie Tour, the Web.com Tour and the PGA Tour are so strong. With their workout programs, and the new technology in balls and clubs, the ball just goes forever. And especially, today’s golf ball goes a lot further. Now, I’m older than these guys, and obviously it has helped me, too, so I can’t really complain. But that is where the game is now.
Reed: I played a charity event a few weeks ago at Fanshawe Golf Club in London, where I played my junior golf. As an 18-year-old, I was driver, 3-wood, wedge on the par-5 No. 1. Now I’m driver, long- to mid-iron. Yes, my game is better. But that’s technology speaking.

“Technology has changed the game forever. You hit it as far as you can hit it. These young guys can hit it a long way. They just get it on the green and hope for a hot putter. That’s the sad part about the way the game has gone, because there’s not much shot making involved anymore.” – Ken Duke

Duke: And that’s how the game is progressing. I mean, it’s hard to compete with the younger guys who hit it 50 or 60 yards past you. But the name of this game is consistency. You have to play your own game. Golf is still a game where whoever gets the ball in the hole with the least amount of strokes wins. That hasn’t changed.

Reed: Let’s talk about The Five who will graduate from the Mackenzie Tour and receive their Web.com Tour cards. They will obviously have progressed through skill, a little luck and a lot of preparation. How will the game slap them in the face once they compete on the Web.com Tour, where the players are more consistent in terms of good shot making?
Duke: It will all come down to a mental game for those guys. Again, golf is about playing your own game. Stick to your own game plan. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re on. If you’re good enough to play at that level, then it all comes down to producing while you’re golfing. Now, players on the Web.com Tour are going to be a little bit better, obviously, and a little more experienced. But if you just play your game and find consistency in your good game, then it should not be an issue. We see a lot of young guys who come out and win on the PGA Tour during their first year.
Reed: Today’s young guns on the PGA Tour are fearless: veterans be damned. It’s part ignorance and part confidence. But it’s working. That, and the new technology in their hands.
Duke: Everyone out there has some game. In terms of those players graduating to the Web.com Tour, they just need to put all of the parts together, and not worry about who they’re playing against.

“Players on the Web.com Tour are going to be a little bit better, obviously, and a little more experienced. But if you just play your game and find consistency in your good game, then it should not be an issue. We see a lot of young guys who come out and win on the PGA Tour during their first year.” – Ken Duke

Reed: At Highland, you will see some grass-roots signs, like players carrying their own bags, or grabbing a local caddy for the week. But so many of today’s young golfers have a posse in their camp – a personal fitness trainer, dietician, mental coach, swing coach, agent – your thoughts on over-managing a young player?

Photo: Titleist Golf.

Duke: Well, when you have all of those people as part of a supporting team, you are paying them, first of all (laughing).
Reed: True. We see more of this at the PGA Tour, as opposed to the Mackenzie Tour where they often play in worn shoes and carry a feather-light bag with no sponsor.
Duke: When you can afford to pay all of those people, then it comes down too having too much information. You need to stick to basics: just play golf. That’s what it comes down to in the end. I’m sure the mental coach and the trainer, for example, are going to give you great advice. But in the end, leave the golfer alone, just let him do his job.
Reed: Talk about your swing coach, Bob Toski.
Duke: Yes, I work with Bob, who’s a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. I met him in 2006, just when I won the Order of Merit on the Nationwide Tour (now Web.com Tour). He helped me get back to being consistent, and more confident. We’ve had a pretty good run since then.
Reed: It’s interesting that you talk about Toski boosting your confidence, rather than messing with your swing.
Duke: Like I said earlier, golf is the same game no matter what the stage. And once you realize that, then you’ll settle down and perform well. Obviously, I can’t play Dustin Johnson’s or Jordan Spieth’s or Jason Day’s or Tiger Woods’s game, I have to play my game. And those guys can’t play anyone else’s game. Once you realize that, the quicker you’ll do well.
Reed: Weir won the Masters Tournament So did Zach Johnson. Not big hitters but both mentally tough and dedicated to their personal games. How should this thinking play into the heads of the Top 60 at Highland during the Freedom 55 Financial Championship?

“Obviously, I can’t play Dustin Johnson’s or Jordan Spieth’s or Jason Day’s or Tiger Woods’s game, I have to play my game. And those guys can’t play anyone else’s game. Once you realize that, the quicker you’ll do well.” – Ken Duke

Duke: The Canadian Tour is where it all started for me. I played up there for seven years, and I met a lot of people up there. I still have a lot of friends from those days. In terms of going forward, it call comes down to playing your own game, and enjoying it. Have fun!  If you start thinking, ‘I have to hit this shot, I have to birdie No. 6,  I must birdie No. 8, I must shoot 4-under on the front 9,’ then your heads starts getting messed up. Don’t think ahead like that. Have fun, stay focused. When you’re enjoying yourself, you’ll play your best golf. It’s like playing with your friends in a Tuesday or Wednesday game, playing back home, messing around in a cart. What are you doing? You’re laughing, joking, having fun. You’re relaxed. So if you can get to that level, you’ll do just fine, and you’ll make it to the Web.com Tour.
Reed: You mention some friendships made while playing on the Canadian Tour. I can only imagine all of the great stories you have which stem from your time spent in Canada. You’ve played at St. Thomas Golf and Country Club, for example.
Duke: I’ve been lucky to have played against a lot of guys that have had some success out here on the PGA Tour, and a lot of them came through the Canadian Tour, which is really wonderful. That just shows you how good it is. And when I was in Ontario, I had a chance to hang around Moe Norman a lot. He always kept us loose. We were young guys trying to make it, so we didn’t have much to say until he said something to us, because we were just all ears. We wanted to listen to what he had to say. So yes, lot of memories about getting to know a legend like Moe Norman, and he was very good to us when we were in Ontario.
Reed: Ken, thanks for your time reflecting on your Canadian Tour days and offering some sage advice to the Top 60 headed to Highland for the Freedom 55 Financial Championship.
Duke: My pleasure Jeff. Please pass along my best to the players in London – I hope they play well that week!

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office http://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com.

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