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Pro golf: Ken Duke becoming a folk hero on tour

By Tom LaMarre

The Sports Xchange

Ken Duke will never be a star on the PGA Tour, but he is becoming something of a folk hero.

If the 47-year-old journeyman  -- a former Labor Day Classic champion at the Worthington Country Club -- can get it going again this week in the Dean & DeLuca Invitational, the fans at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, will flock to see him play.

That was what happened when he posted a remarkable 7-under-par 65 despite greens that reached warp speed in the third round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass two weeks ago.

Even his peers were amazed by his score, which was 10.5 strokes better than the field average.

"What course was Ken Duke playing today?" said top-ranked Jason Day, who went on to win the tournament. "Can anyone tell me? Was he playing across the road (on the shorter course)?

"I mean it was just, to be able to shoot that score is better -- I think that should be the course record. It was just an absolute joke."

Added Russell Knox: "That's the best round of golf ever, probably."

NBC commentator Johnny Miller said Duke's round was better than the course-record-tying 63s shot by Day and Colt Knost earlier in the tournament.

"That's quite a compliment, coming from Johnny," said Duke, whose only PGA Tour victory came in the 2013 Travelers Championship.

What made it more amazing was that Duke missed the cut in five of his nine events this season on the PGA Tour after coming back in February from a broken wrist he sustained at his daughter's volleyball practice in September.

Duke, who tied for third in the Players after his best previous result this year was a tie for 37th in the Honda Classic, is playing on a major medical extension because of the injury.

At Colonial, he will try to bounce back from a missed cut last week in the AT&T Byron Nelson, in which he shot 77-70. He seemed to have made it to the weekend after an eagle on the 16th hole of round two, but he finished double bogey, triple bogey.

"I've been working hard and doing a lot of therapy as well and just getting the confidence to get back and make some putts when you need to and hit some shots when you need to," said Duke, who made five consecutive birdies through the seventh hole in his eye-opening round in the Players. "That's what it's all about.

"I've been struggling ... putting some good rounds together but not putting four good rounds together. Just got to keep working hard and keep doing therapy and just keep believing in my golf swing.

"I'm going to keep going forward, and (tying for third in the Players) gets me in Colonial and Memorial, and Memphis (the FedEx St. Jude Classic). So have to keep going forward and see if we can roll some good rounds off."

Duke also will get to play in the Travelers at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., come August because he won the tournament three years ago in a playoff over Chris Stroud.

Getting there wasn't easy.

His first victory in 187 starts on the PGA Tour, after he finished second three times, came when he sank a 3-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole after a brilliant chip shot.

Duke seemed to have locked up the title when he closed with a 4-under-par 66 before Stroud came along and chipped in for birdie on the final hole to force the playoff.

"I told myself, 'It's my turn,'" Duke said after holing the winning putt and before he wrote a check for $25,000 to the tournament's charities. "'There's no reason why you can't just knock this in. Just slow down just a little bit and knock it in.' And that's what I did.

"You gotta believe in yourself in everything you do. That's why those guys at the top are winning week in, week out because they believe they can do it. It's kind of one of those things once you finally do it, it might come easier the next time."

Duke turned pro in 1992 after being an NAIA All-American at Henderson State. He has played golf around the world -- on the Asian Tour, the South American Tour, the Canadian Tour, the Nike and Nationwide tours, the last two known as the Web.com Tour these days.

In 1999, he captured the Canadian Tour order of merit (or money title) after winning the Shell Payless Open and the Bayer Championship. He won the BMW Charity Pro-Am on the way to leading the 2006 Nationwide money list, and he regained the PGA Tour card he first earned in 2004 by winning the 2011 Nationwide Tour Championship.

"Yea, it's been a long time," said Duke, who wears a back brace because he was born with scoliosis. "It's just great to be a part of this big family on the PGA Tour."

And while he might not be a star, Duke might have a chance to become one -- in three years when he reaches the PGA Tour Champions.

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