Golf writers honor Ken Duke for overcoming disability
Two of Ken Duke’s fondest memories in golf are tied to the Masters Tournament, but neither involves anything he did in the tournament.
And they happened five years apart.
One of them came Wednesday night when Duke was honored with the Ben Hogan Award at the Golf Writers Association of America Awards Banquet at Augusta Country Club.
The award, which goes to a golfer who remains active in the sport despite a physical handicap or serious illness, is presented annually on the eve of the Masters.
Duke, 45, who will begin play in his second Masters today, was diagnosed with scoliosis in the seventh grade and plays with a metal rod in his back. The condition, an abnormal curvature of the spine, led to surgery at age 15. The 16-inch metal rod was attached to his spine to help straighten it and relieve pressure on his lungs and heart in the future.
Duke said he was “overwhelmed” to win the award, especially with it being named after Hogan.
“A class act, probably the best to ever play the game,” Duke said. “He put the time into learning to play the game.”
Duke played minor tours until he qualified for the PGA Tour in 2004 at age 35. He credits much of his success since then to former PGA Tour player and instructor Bob Toski.
It is Toski who gave Duke his second Masters-related memory when Duke qualified for the Masters for the first time, in 2009.
Duke said Toski would never take money for his lessons, so he found a way to show appreciation. About a month before the 2009 Masters, Duke asked Augusta National member Danny Yates whether he and Toski could be his guests for a round at Augusta National, and Yates agreed.
Toski, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour who topped the money list in 1954, had played in the Masters five times, but his last start had been in 1957, when he was in the field with the likes of Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead.
“That’s the thing, I couldn’t ever give him money,” Duke said. “I asked him, could I do one thing for you, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ I want to take you to Augusta. He said, ‘I’ll let you do that.’”
What happened during that round while walking down the 10th fairway still gives Duke goose bumps, he said.
“He looked up in the sky and was talking to Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Snead, all of those guys and said, ‘Boys, look where I am now, and I’m 82 years old.’ It was just him and I talking at the time. It was touching.”
In the 2009 Masters, Duke finished at even-par 288 (71-72-73-72) and tied for 35th place. It could have been much better if he hadn’t lipped out so many putts.
“It was a bunch of them,” Duke said. “The greens are so fast and the holes are tight. You just have to be perfect. That’s why it’s so hard to win there. You just have to trust your line and be confident.”
Duke qualified for the 2009 Masters via the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings. He returns this year by earning his invitation as a tour winner, beating Chris Stroud in a sudden-death playoff last summer at the Travelers Championship. It was Duke’s first PGA Tour victory, coming in his 187th start.
“It feels different (than in 2009),” Duke said. “Winning a tournament to get in is pretty special. I feel more relaxed, I feel like I’ve been playing a little bit better. I feel at ease. I like this place.”
After he won the Travelers, Duke was heard to say on camera, “That’s what I’m talking about.” What he meant, Duke said later, was that the first win was “a lot of hard work and I finally got it done.”
“You never know when you’re going to win or if you’re going to win,” he said. “I finished second three times, one shot off in each one. Finally getting it done was a special moment for me.”