One year before he shot the round of his life, Ken Duke was sitting in a parking lot in Phoenix, facing his professional mortality.
What started out as an ache in his heel had grown into excruciating pain. He called PGA Tour officials to explore the possibility of a major medical exemption.
He had already overcome Scoliosis as a boy to forge an unexpected PGA Tour career, but maybe this foot injury would finally be his end.
“I couldn’t walk,” the 47-year-old Duke said in a recent telephone interview, just days after his brilliant 65 on a brutally-difficult third round of The Players. “It felt like I stepped on a sharp pebble in my shoe. My trainer thought stretching and massages would work it out. We tried tennis balls. Frozen water bottles. It just never cut it.”
Through the recommendation of his manager, Duke sought out a foot specialist to treat what was diagnosed as plantar fasciitis.
“We looked at him and determined that we could help him with some stem cell therapy and get him back playing right away rather than a more invasive procedure,” said Dr. Stephen L. Barrett of the Innovative Neuropathy Treatment Institute in Phoenix. “Mr. Duke’s problem was very straightforward. He had a very significant amount of degeneration in the plantar fascia, so we knew that we needed to do some kind of regenerative medicine to try to grow new tissue and restore that rather than just to treat him symptomatically.”
Duke was out of action less than a month.
He later received similar treatment for a balky wrist. He also began endorsing a product, BioD, a company based in Cordova, Tenn. that is developing regenerative medicine derived from placental tissues. (Duke is in the field at this week at the Fed Ex St. Jude Classic in nearby Memphis).
Duke’s comeback from his foot injury is just the latest in a life beset by physical challenges. As a seventh-grader in Arkadelphia, Ark., doctors diagnosed him with Scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that, untreated, could have led to severe heart and lung problems.
The corrective surgery included the attachment of a 16-inch metal rod to his vertebrae that remains to this day.
“I’m still in awe that I’m playing golf because of the Scoliosis,” Duke said. “When I overcame that then this [foot injury] comes about and you’re like ‘Oh boy, what’s next on the list?’ You hear about guys being in pain on the PGA Tour? I’m that guy. You just do what you can do. You don’t complain, you just go forward.”
Says Scott Brown, the 2013 Puerto Rico Open champ: “I’ve known Ken since we were on the Web.com Tour. With what he’s had, battling Scoliosis and being as good a ball-striker that he is, it’s just incredible.”
At one point embarrassed to share his story of Scoliosis, Duke these days is both vocal and visible about his journey, fully aware of the inspiration others receive.
He has visited children with Scoliosis, donated to the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute, and to the charities of the Travelers Championship, which he won in 2013, at age 44, in his 187th start.
Duke is also effusive inside the ropes, quick to share a laugh with the gallery or a dance move after holing a shot.
“I have so many people pulling for me,” he said. “I’m lucky I have my life.”