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Golf: The Duke of Labor Day

WORTHINGTON -- In one tournament, Ken Duke became transformed from an obscure "journeyman" professional golfer to the celebrity of the moment.

His weekend triumph in the Travelers Championship was exciting news to Worthington area golfers who remember him from his 1994 victory in the local Labor Day Golf Classic.

"I remember him as a very young guy. He was only about 24 when he was here," recalled Dave Jueneman, who was the Country Club president in '94 -- the very year Duke turned pro.

Jueneman remembers that Duke tied the course record at the Classic, tearing it up on the front nine.

On Sunday, the 44-year-old Duke -- of Arkadelphia, Ark. -- gained his very first PGA Tour win at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn. The Associated Press story that accompanied Duke's accomplishment called him a "journeyman" who needed 187 starts on the Tour before breaking through.

No matter what one thinks of Duke's under-the-radar professional career, he has been nothing if not persistent. He played on the Canadian, Asian and South American tours in the past, and he was ranked 144th in the world entering the Travelers.

"He's a great guy," said Jueneman, who has followed Duke's career. "A little bit of a quiet guy, but he's got a good sense of humor. And he just loved the atmosphere down here."

In the Associated Press story, there was no mention of a childhood disease that helped shape Duke's adult life. But Jueneman remembers that the Arkadelphia product plays with a steel rod in his back that was the result of childhood scoliosis.

A June 9, 2012, article from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., relates the story. Duke was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 14 and he has played golf with a surgically implanted rod for nearly 30 years. He was in the seventh grade when Little Rock, Ark., doctors diagnosed that he had a 26 percent curvature of the spine, and he was advised to wear a back brace 23 hours each day. Duke wore it even while playing golf.

But after two years, the curvature increased to 51 percent. Doctors determined that pressure on Duke's lungs and heart could have become life-threatening without more care, and so a rod was surgically attached to his spine.

The Commercial Appeal quotes Duke's father, Ray: "It's a miracle that he's able to play. It's so rewarding to see him competing against the best in the world."

Before Duke won the Classic, he was a friend of Bruce Carroll of Maumelle, Ark., who in 1993 won the Labor Day Classic himself. It was Carroll, Jueneman said, who encouraged Duke to compete in Worthington.

"We'd seen (Duke) periodically since that," said Jueneman, who worked at the PGA Championship in 2009 in Bloomington.

Jueneman said his "touching base" with Duke was brief back then.

"It was, 'Hey, Ken, how 'ya doin?' Do you remember Worthington?' 'Oh, yeah!'"

Jueneman said he didn't try to contact Duke again after the Travelers tournament because he suspected the former Labor Day Classic champ was plenty busy fending off other attempts to congratulate him.

But does Dave think Mr. Duke will ever again play in the Labor Day Classic?

"I doubt it," he said.

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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