How Golfer Ken Duke Perservered In The Face Of Adversity
What do life, golf and a moonshot share in common?
One mild miscalculation, one innocent alteration, one unnoticed deviation, and you could end up landing somewhere that’s nowhere near where you intended.
Without a series of finely calibrated, perfectly timed—some might even say, divinely inspired and cosmically coordinated—adjustments to both his spine and his swing, Ken Duke might never have achieved his status as a come-from-behind, Johnny-come-lately PGA star.
But for all the adjustments along the way that prepared him to compete among golf’s greats, even winning a PGA tour in 2013, one thing Duke never needed to adjust was his attitude.
“He had some good times and some bad times—as all golfers do,” says his mom, Bettie Duke, of Arkadelphia, Arkansas. “But he never gave up; he kept his determination.”
That determination, family support, eagerness to help others—and humility to recognize when he needed help himself—underpin the perspective and work ethic that fueled the Stuart resident’s surprise success among golf’s best.
Born in Hope, Arkansas, but raised in Arkadelphia, Duke excelled at several sports, playing high school football and basketball in addition to golf. In the seventh grade, he was diagnosed with scoliosis—a severe curvature of the spine.
“We took him to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock and they said, ‘We’ll watch it for a while,’” Bettie remembers. “They put a brace on him. That summer, he took the brace off and played golf, but [the condition] had gotten worse.”
Much worse—deteriorating with the speed of his adolescent growth spurts.
“In the eighth and ninth grades I wore a back brace 23 hours a day,” he recalls. “It was trying to correct itself, but I was growing so quickly.”
In October 1984, the curve measured at 52 degrees. A mere five months later, the curvature worsened to 72 degrees.
“I was more winded than other kids and couldn’t breathe,” he says.
Doctors urged surgery.
“The doctors said, ‘We’ve got to do surgery or it’s going to affect his heart and lungs,’” Bettie says.
Duke forged a love of golf while playing with his father, Ray, on weekends and during the summer. The surgery, which entailed inserting a 16-inch-long rod in his back, would eliminate all contact sports from his future. Although he could have viewed golf as his last athletic refuge, Duke faced far greater post-surgery fears than an end to his high school sports days.
“I was hoping I could still walk, first of all,” he says. “To play any sport was a bonus.”
Duke emerged from the successful surgery not only able to walk, but he was even taller than before.
“When they stood him up after the surgery, he was 2 inches taller,” Bettie says. “He made the decision to play golf, and I think he made the right one.”
Four months later, Duke was on the range hitting golf balls. Six months later, he competed for his high school’s district title and won, shooting a 77—as a sophomore.
Duke attended college at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. He majored in sports management while playing golf with the goal of going pro after graduation.
“I finished college in 1992,” he says. “I didn’t have much money. I had to find some sponsorships.”
While securing initial support to travel the world playing golf throughout Asia, South America and Canada, it took time—10 years—to get out on the PGA tour. Along the way, he worked a variety of jobs, even after he and his wife, Michelle Duke, married in 2001. As his family grew to two daughters (now ages 13 and 15), so did the pressure to perform on the course.
“You have to have money to support yourself, and if you don’t make any money that week, you’ve got to have a backup plan,” Duke says, “I’ve always enjoyed the competition and the challenge, but it does make for a little more pressure if you have a family.”
While making a living playing golf, Duke made a life with Michelle—also on the golf course. Before the couple moved to Palm City from Boca Raton in 2006, she worked full time but took off to travel with Ken. While still newlyweds, he asked her to caddy for him on the Web.com Tour.
“I did that until I was pregnant and found out I couldn’t carry the bag anymore,” Michelle says. “But as soon as [both girls] had their sets of shots, we were gone with their dad and on the road. And we did that until our oldest started kindergarten.”
Although she’s since “focused on taking care of the girls on the home front,” Michelle seizes those occasional events when she’s able to caddy for her husband during a competition.
“He asked me to caddy for him in Palm Springs two years ago—what a great memory,” she says. “If the opportunity is given and a friend or my parents can come out and stay with the kids and I can break away, I like to do that. I love to be on the golf course and love to be around the other players.”
In addition to preferring her companionship, Duke says he relishes those moments when the entire family accompanies him on the road.
“It’s relaxing having her out and even having the girls out,” he says. “After you get through playing, you have to figure out what you’re going to do—go out to eat, go out to the movies. With them, we go out as a family, which is better than sitting in the hotel room, which we do 25, 30 weeks out of the year. It’s very lonely.”
In 2006, he topped the money list in the Nationwide Tour and won the BMW Charity Pro-Am, earning a spot on the PGA Tour. The following year he made four consecutive top 10 finishes.
Soon after, someone suggested he reach out to golfing great Bob Toski.
“They said, ‘You’re a hands player and he’s a hands teacher,’” Duke recalls. “He changed my swing a little bit, and I got a lot more consistent.”
Toski changed Duke’s swing more than a little bit, says the acclaimed instructor.
“There were a number of corrections that I made,” Toski says. “His alignment was one in which he aimed left and swung right. You never do that in golf. You swing where you’re aiming.”
A member of the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame, Toski, 92, counts five PGA Tour wins to his distinguished record. He played alongside legends of the game, including Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, who nicknamed him the “Mouse” after Mighty Mouse, a nod to his driving power despite his small frame.
The first living instructor to earn induction in the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame, Toski also authored several books on golf.
Duke was 40 when he approached Toski. “He was playing on the tour for quite a while,” Toski says. “He was a journeyman, playing overseas. I said, ‘If you stay with me, I promise you will play the big tour and if you make the big tour, I promise you will have a chance to win a tournament.’”
Adhering to the instructions Toski provided, Duke started driving farther and scoring more efficiently.
In 2013, at age 44, he got a spot in the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Connecticut. It was familiar ground for Toski. In 1953, he’d competed in the same tournament—then known as the Insurance City Open—and won. The following year he’d won four more tournaments and the title of leading money-winner.
Encouraging his student to think positively, Toski advised Duke aim to shoot a 66. Watching the game on TV at home, Toski saw Duke shoot a 66 in the final round, facing his opponent, Chris Stroud, in a sudden-death playoff. At the 18th hole, Stroud couldn’t birdie from 30 feet while Duke’s shot landed 3 feet from the cup.
“I had to walk out,” Toski says. “All these years he hadn’t won a tournament. Then he knocked it in and won the tournament.”
Duke’s first tournament win arrived 60 years after Toski’s first tournament win—and the same tournament to boot. (The two also share the same number of lifetime hole-in-ones at 11 apiece. Ken also counts one double eagle to his lifetime golfing achievements.)
“Here I took a 40-year-old man, changed his swing, and four years later he won the tournament,” Toski says. “That’s one of my great accomplishments as a teacher and for him as a player, for you become a part of a fraternity—the winner’s circle.”
The feeling is one of fraternity, and even family, Duke says.
“It’s like a Super Bowl or NBA championship; you feel like you have to get that title,” he says. “And you feel like, I belong out here now. You finally feel like you belong with this family [now] that you’ve finally won a championship.”
Fortunately, Duke’s first golf instructor—his father, Ray—got to share in his son’s joys before dying of a heart attack in 2016.
“You couldn’t ask for a more proud father,” Bettie says. “He was so proud of Ken and supported him in anything he did.”
In 2014, Duke won the acclaimed Ben Hogan Award for his perseverance. It’s a character trait that will serve him well in January when he turns 50 and is eligible for the Champions Tour.
“He’s just that kind of person,” Bettie says. “If he starts something, he’s going to finish.”
As he plays, practices and prepares, Duke remains active in the community, supporting several local charities, including Folds of Honor, Project Lift, Volunteers in Medicine, Visiting Nurse Association of Florida, Celebrities Fore Kids, United Way of Martin County’s White Doves toy drive and Young Life.
He says focusing on his family and the needs of others helps him keep life—whether on the fairway or in the rough—in proper perspective.
“It’s never about me playing golf for a living,” he says. “It’s all about giving back to others who need help.”