Travelers Champion Ken Duke Knows Plenty About Backbone

CROMWELL — Ken Duke knows plenty about backbone. When he was 14, it was determined he had a 26 percent curvature of his. After wearing a steel brace 23 hours every day for two years, even on the local golf courses of Arkansas, the news only grew worse.

The curvature of his spine had reached 51 percent. He underwent surgery for his scoliosis. It was either that or — literally — risk walking around as a human question mark and having his internal organs eventually crush under the pressure. He had a 16-inch steel rod inserted and nearly three decades later it remains his forever companion, running from below his shoulder to near his coccyx.

Yeah, Ken Duke, all 44 years, four months and 25 days of him, knows plenty about backbone.

He knows what it's like to play on the Canadian Tour, the Asian Tour, the South American Tour, the Tour. He knows what it's like to play forever and feel as if you'll never break through for that first victory against the big boys. So when he dropped a 2-foot, 9-inch putt Sunday on the second playoff hole to capture the 2013 Travelers Championship and become the oldest first-time PGA Tour winner since Ed Dougherty in 1995, well, let's just agree it was pretty cool to watch him both begin to tear up on CBS and playfully throw a punch at the camera.

Bill Clinton's from Hope, Ark. So is Ken Duke. Hope is a powerful thing. So is faith.

"You've got to believe in yourself," Duke said. "You also have to be patient. You can't win by pushing everything. That's kind of the way I live my life."

Every year, late on a Sunday afternoon, we seem to learn something at our state's premier sporting event. The closing holes at TPC River Highlands remain an enduring test. They certainly do a sturdy job of exposing the best and worst of the world's best golfers. We've seen guys jump for joy and slam clubs. We've seen guys break down in joy and sneak out without explaining their demise. On Sunday, we saw Ken Duke's enduring moment. And we saw Bubba Watson less-than-shining one.

We found out something about backbone.

This day would begin with 86-year-old Bob Toski calling Duke. Toski is as much a part of this tournament as anybody, having won the second Insurance City Open in 1953. And 60 years after he won at Wethersfield, he had something to say to Ken Duke.

"It's your time, too," Toski said.

And it was.

On 10, Duke's approach shot went left, hit a tree and somehow kicked back onto the green within 6 feet of the hole. He sank the birdie putt. Ken Duke may be a religious man, but that's not why he pointed upward. No, this was more arboreal than celestial.

"I did point at the tree," Duke said, "and say thank you."

On 13, he rolled one downhill 45 feet, 8 inches so carefully, so slowly that it's scant exaggeration to say time stood still before that baby dropped for another birdie. He fist-pumped four times, backhanded the ball to a fan and fist-pumped once more.

He bogeyed 14, birdied 15, saved par at 16. And as Watson collapsed at 16, Duke went on to survive a horrible tee shot on 18 where he was so far up the right bank he could have had a drink at a hospitality tent. Still, he managed his par and was all set to become the 17th player to score his first Tour win at this tournament — Watson among them — when Chris Stroud chipped in on the 18th hole from 50 feet. It was, simply, one of the great shots in Travelers history.

Duke, the small town boy from Hope and Arkedelphia, Ark., survived the playoff. Mr. Duke, meet your check for $1.098 million.

"I've never really taken a lot of lessons, growing up with not a lot in Arkansas," Duke said. "My mom and dad did what they had to do. They had to work for a living and I had to do what I had to do, practice at 6 and 7 in the morning before I went to school

"But I got down to Florida and ended up meeting Mr. Toski. He said, 'Come see me.'"

So he did in January of 2006. It's funny and expected in a full-circle kind of way that Duke would list playing a round of golf with Toski at Augusta National as one of his life's highlights and that he'd list Larry Bird, the Hick from French Lick, as his hero.

"With my back problems, Mr. Toski made me swing the golf club. It seemed like it was easier," Duke said. "No one's ever told me the way to swing the club. He has played with Hogan and Snead and all of them."

Sometimes Duke just goes over to Toski's place to talk. They might not even hit any balls.

"I just had a great session with him last week," Duke said. "The way he says things might all be the same, but it seems like every time we talk and every time we're on the range that it's different. He has played with the best. He has taught the best. He's amazing. I wouldn't be here now if I never had met him."

Duke talked about how he survived some bad years and thought about quitting a few times and something always seem to happen that kept him going, kept him pushing. And now, with this victory, he gets to play the Masters at Augusta for real next April.

Yeah, you learn plenty on these late Sunday afternoons. We learned plenty about Watson, too, in 2010, when he won for the first time and he talked so emotionally about his dad, Gerry, the man who taught him the game, the man who would die months later of throat cancer. He went on to win the Masters in 2012. Bubba-mania hit. Fans love him. He's a big hitter with a big personality, a Southern boy whose act wears well among the Northern galleries.

Yet if you're around Watson, even for a short time each year, you'll discover a guy who can be curt. Certainly, it's not an easy tightrope for a guy to play "The Every Man" and live in an exclusive gated community. It's not always an easy tightrope for a man who wears his Christianity on his sleeve to contain those strong competitive emotions when all the world is watching.

Bubba came off badly on national television at the 16th hole when his lead vanished into a fourth-place finish with an ugly triple bogey. He sure sounded as if he was blaming his caddie, Ted Scott. After he won in 2010, as Jason Sobel of Golf Channel pointed out, Bubba said, "My caddie stayed with me for four years even though I kept being mad and pissy on the golf course."

Pissy sounded about right Sunday. He plunked a 9-iron off the front bank of the green and the ball dropped into the water.

"Go! Go!" Bubba urged the ball before looking at Scott, adding. "Water with that club."

He took his drop and proceeded to overshoot the green.

"You're telling me that's the right yardage," Watson said in disgust, before picking up his golf bag. Ultimately when he took his 6, he said, "There's just no reason for me to show up."

Actually, the $292,800 he pocketed was a very good reason to show up.

"We mis-clubbed," Watson said afterward. "We thought the wind was going to do something else with my ball. Obviously we misjudged it." He said something snarky about the camera guy being more interested in getting a shot of him than telling him if his ball went in the water. And, then before giving a more honest answer, he gave another snarky one how the first shot was different than the second because one went too short and the other too long. As he walked away, I was kicking myself that I didn't ask Watson about what he said to Scott.

Another reporter did moments later.

“Don’t try to make me look bad,” Bubba said before walking into the clubhouse. Watson and Scott later talked to, which reported the caddie took full responsibility for the tee shot, saying Watson wanted to hit 8-iron initially but that he convinced him it was a 9-iron.

"We're both Christians," Watson said about his caddie the other day. "We can bounce off life ideas, life difficulties with each other while we're out there for five, six hours. That's really what I'm looking for in a caddie, somebody that believes the same thing I'm believing. And somebody I can trust. Somebody I know can add and subtract."

I'm no math major, but I do know millions watching on CBS couldn't have been impressed with Watson (who also blew off coming to the media tent Saturday with a third-round lead) making his caddie look bad on national TV. Yeah, you learn plenty about backbone late on these Sunday afternoons each year.