When 2013 Travelers Championship winner Ken Duke was growing up, finishing atop a PGA Tour event never entered his mind. Duke was more concerned about being able to walk.
"I didn't really care about any sports,'' he said. "I wanted my life. I wanted to be just an average person and have a family. If anyone asked me if I wanted to be a professional athlete, I would have said, 'No chance. I have a back condition.' ''
As a seventh-grader in Arkansas, Duke was diagnosed during a routine checkup with scoliosis, a curvature of his spine. His spine had curved on his right side into his lung and caused shortness of breath and pain and limited his movement.
Duke was supposed to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day, but he admitted he took it off to play baseball, football, basketball and golf. By the time he turned 16, the curvature of spine had reached 72 degrees. So a 16-inch metal rod was attached to his spine to set the curve at 38 degrees for the rest of his life. He wore a body cast for the next six months.
Duke didn't want his friends to see the scar on his back when he went swimming, but he eventually realized that he couldn't hide forever. Four months after his surgery, Duke received his doctor's permission to hit golf balls. He hit them from one knee with a 4-wood until his body cast was removed. Contact sports were ruled out, so he stuck with golf. He figured if he didn't make it as a pro golfer, he'd go into business, but he never had to make the switch.
"I just kept fighting and here we are,'' Duke said Tuesday when he returned to TPC River Highlands for media day, "and to be a winner is even better.''
The Travelers will be held June 19-22 this year.
Duke enjoys answering emails from children with scoliosis and calming their fears.
"It's not about me out here hitting golf balls,'' he said. "It's about talking to those guys and the younger kids and just saying, 'Everything's going to be OK.' ''
The metal rod limits Duke's backswing, so he had to learn how to play golf all over again. Duke turned pro in 1994, but it took him a decade of playing on the Web.com and Canadian tours and overseas to reach the PGA Tour. He never gave up. He always held out hope. What else would you expect from someone who was born in Hope, Ark.
After Duke won the Travelers, his wife, Michelle, was excited about earning the chance to take their family to Hawaii to watch him play in the Tournament of Champions, but Duke was more psyched about earning a shot to...