Duke endured long wait for first victory

When his moment arrived, it didn’t take long for Ken Duke to think about Kapalua.

The 44-year-old won for the first time on the PGA Tour, at the Travelers Championship in June, with a second-hole playoff victory over Chris Stroud. It was Duke’s 187th start on tour.

Becoming the oldest first-time winner on the tour since 1995 has Duke set for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, scheduled for Jan. 3-6 at the Plantation Course.

“That’s one tournament that you want to play every year,” Duke said. “Especially at the start of the year – you know you’ve done something special when you get invited to that tournament. I can’t wait to get there.”

Duke doesn’t want to be the leader of the old-man brigade.

“Obviously, there’s other guys that are older that play a little bit better than I do,” he said. “I’m just happy that from where I am health-wise and my game and all that goes with it, I just kind of feel that I’m part of the PGA Tour now since I’ve finally won an event.”

Duke has spent seven full seasons on the PGA Tour, starting in 2004. He has pair of Web.com Tour wins as well.

“I didn’t see my game going the other way, I just kept seeing it getting better,” he said. “I was staying pretty consistent and if you can stay consistent out on the PGA Tour, you just never know when it’s your turn to win.”

Beating Stroud provided Duke with some confidence.

“I think it gives it a lot,” Duke said. “I didn’t play so great after that – just kind of picked and chose where I wanted to go – but I feel like with getting a bunch of rest this offseason I will play a little bit better.”

Duke was in the clubhouse at 12-under par before Stroud chipped in for birdie to send the tournament to a playoff. On the second playoff hole, Duke smacked his second shot within three feet of the pin and moments later claimed victory.

“I’m just trying to be a little bit more confident, be a little bit more aggressive and I feel like if you’ve done it once, you can do it again,” Duke said.

Duke has overcome much more than a long wait for his first tour win.

As a 7th-grader, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Doctors determined he had a 26 percent curvature of the spine and advised him to wear a back brace 23 hours a day. Two years later, with the curvature reaching 51 percent, he underwent surgery.

According to the PGA Tour website, without the procedure, the pressure on Duke’s lungs and heart might have become life-threatening. Surgeons attached a 16-inch metal rod to his spine and less than a year later, he returned to his high school golf team and won a district tournament while playing with a back brace.

In 2009, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences established The Ken Duke Endowed Chair in Scoliosis – its funds go toward treatment of spinal deformities, tumors and fractures.

When Duke arrives for his first look at the Plantation Course, it will be with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Ashleigh, 10, and Lauren, 8. Whale watching and the Old Lahaina Luau are on the agenda.

“We are grinding it so much out there, so to be with them and get your mind off the game after the round, it’s awesome,” Duke said. “My wife will want to be out there – she’s never been there before – she likes to see every hole and see every shot. She doesn’t get involved with it, but she is one of those wives that she wants to know what happened on every hole, not just show up at the end all prim and proper.

“The kids will be at activities. They have been talking about this ever since I won.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com