CROMWELL, Conn. – TPC River Highlands has a history of giving up first-time hardware, but no one saw this one coming.
At 44 years young, Ken Duke emerged from a crowded leaderboard and a career largely defined by obscurity to hoist his first PGA Tour title on Sunday at the Travelers Championship, but then anyone can have a tough two decades.
It seems about right that it would be a potent cocktail of karma and cool nerves that would ultimately deliver the journeyman to the winner’s circuit. Any other way would have seemed anti-climactic.
There were fortunate bounces – like at the 10th hole when Duke pulled his approach into the trees only to be rewarded with a beneficial rebound and a 3-foot birdie putt.
There were cruel twists – like Chris Stroud’s chip-in for birdie to tie Duke at 12 under from 50 feet at the 72nd hole.
There were heroics – like Duke’s approach shots on both playoff holes.
And ultimately there were tears when Duke was reminded that Bob Toski, his longtime swing coach, won this event 60 years ago.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” said an emotional Duke, who signed for a final-round 66. “I talked to him this morning and he said, ‘It’s about time to win your first one where I did.’”
Duke began the final 18 at TPC River Highlands two strokes back and something of an afterthought as Bubba Watson closed on his second Travelers title and U.S. Open champion Justin Rose loomed just three back.
But as another Chamber of Commerce afternoon wore on Duke muddled along, making his miracle birdie at No. 10 and then adding another at the 11th to move into the lead at 11 under. He kept pace with Watson with a 6 footer at the 15th for birdie but seemed to run out of holes when the southern southpaw chipped in at the 15th to move to 13 under.
A gust of wind at the 16th hole, however, ended Watson’s run, dropping his tee shot into a water hazard and leading a triple bogey-6 and a not-so-pleasant exchange with his caddie.
“The guys played great down the stretch and I didn't,” said Watson, who closed with a 70. “That's one of the things I just have to learn from that. You know, maybe look at the difference of we need to be long (at No. 16) instead of short on that situation.”
As Duke waited in the scoring area, Stroud dropped his chip for birdie at the last to force overtime.
“Are you kidding me?” Duke smiled as he marched to the putting green to prepare for the playoff.
Even in the playoff it wasn’t pretty, or easy. On the first extra hole, Duke’s drive caromed through a bunker down the left side of the fairway while Stroud split the fairway, but the veteran gouged his approach onto the green while Stroud found a greenside bunker.
Both players made par at the first playoff hole and Duke secured the title with a sand wedge from 118 yards at the 18th to 3 feet for birdie.
“I gave it everything I had. I had nothing left in the bag,” Stroud (67) said.
Duke has probably thought the same thing since turning pro in 1994, but then you don’t go 0-for-186 in Tour starts without some resilience.
“We just kept battling and battling and we knew this year was important because of his age,” said Duke’s caddie Chris Carpenter.
Through tears, Duke dedicated his victory to Toski, who he worked with last Wednesday in south Florida.
“How can you not (play well) after working with Bob. The guy is a legend,” Duke said on Saturday. “He always tells me something different, that’s the beauty of what he does.”
Duke could have also given an assist to modern medicine. Slowed by tendinitis in his right elbow for much of this season, Duke finally relented and had a cortisone shot to ease the pain four weeks ago before the Colonial.
Such is the life of 44 year old with more hard miles than a ’67 Mustang. After nearly two decades of trial and error, it turns out all Duke needed to get off the Tour victory schneid was a little belief and a few beneficial bounces.
“I signed up to play this game for a living in 1994. Obviously you don't know how it's going to work out,” Duke said. “Some people make it, some people don't. But I've always just believed in myself and tried to have fun with the game.”
For Duke, it seems some decades are better than others.