CROMWELL, Conn. — When you’ve waited so long and gone through so much to position yourself for a PGA Tour win, what’s a few extra holes and a whole bunch of drama?
Ken Duke was diagnosed with scoliosis as a teenager, and was medalist in a high school district tournament while wearing a back brace. He’d been close to winning on tour before, finishing second three times, but was the epitome of a journeyman: Spending way more time off the tour than on, competing in unglamorous locales and obscure events, since becoming a professional golfer 19 years ago.
But on Sunday, at age 44 and in his 187th start, the man born in an Arkansas town called Hope became a winner on the PGA Tour. Finally.
Duke was forced into a playoff at the Travelers Championship when Chris Stroud chipped in from behind the 18th green at TPC River Highlands, leaving both players with 12-under-par totals. After the first extra hole was halved with pars, Duke stuffed his approach shot 2 feet from the 18th hole. Once Stroud’s birdie putt missed low, Duke tapped in for the win, joining a fraternity he always felt kept a spot for him.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” said Duke, who closed with a 4-under 66. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been on the Canadian tour, mini-tours, Asian Tour, South American Tour, all of them, Web.com. You don’t know how it’s going to work out. Some people make it, some people don’t. I’ve always just believed in myself.”
That it came at the Travelers brings special meaning, because Duke’s teacher is Bob Toski, an 86-year-old Massachusetts native who won five times on the PGA Tour, including the second playing of what’s now the Travelers Championship, in 1953.
Toski called Duke on Sunday morning, one of many calls and texts the veteran received from supporters during the week. He also had a “Team Duke” T-shirt crew from Massachusetts rooting for him on-site during the tournament, led by Fred Smith of Lowell, whom Duke met at a Red Sox game in 2004. The messages to Duke were simple: It’s your time.
It appeared to be, especially when an errant approach shot to the 10th green ricocheted off a tree and onto the green, setting up an unlikely bonus birdie from 6 feet that tied Duke for the lead. It appeared to be, when he dropped a 45-footer for birdie on the par-5 13th hole that put him in front. It appeared to be, up until the moment Stroud holed out from 50 feet after hitting his approach shot to the 72d hole over the green, setting off a wild celebration. Faced with a must-make, Stroud made, just like Duke’s hero — Larry Bird — always seemed to do in crunch time.
“It was probably only a 1-out-of-20 shot, but it went in,” said Stroud, who was also looking for his first tour win and closed with 67. “I gave myself a chance, and that’s all you can ask for out here. You don’t get a bunch of chances to win golf tournaments, and when you do you just want to play your best. And I did, I played the best I could.”
Six players owned at least a share of the Sunday lead at times, but Bubba Watson was alone in front after a birdie on the par-4 15th hole put him up by one over Duke, who was playing one group ahead. Duke stayed one shot back with a solid 12-foot par save at the 16th after he bunkered his tee shot.
Watson won the 2010 Travelers — his first PGA Tour victory — on the 16th hole, in a playoff. The same hole would end his chances this year. Protecting that one-shot lead, he rinsed his tee ball in the lake guarding the front of the green, took a penalty drop, hit his third shot over the green, chipped on, and two-putted for a triple-bogey 6. In less than 10 minutes, he had given the tournament away.
“Missed club on 16. We thought the wind was going to do something else with my ball, and obviously we misjudged it,” Watson said. “The guys played good down the stretch, and I didn’t.”
It was just the opening Duke needed. He calmly made a two-putt par at No. 17, then overcame a bad drive at the 18th with a good recovery shot, and an even better putt from the fringe. He made par again on the first playoff hole after pulling his drive into the left rough, then hit the wedge shot of his life on the second extra hole, setting up his long-awaited win.
“You have to be patient,” Duke said. “You can’t make things happen out here. You can’t win by pushing everything. I’m an easygoing kind of guy, and that’s the way I play golf.”
Oh, and Duke’s connection to Bird? How did that come about?
“Larry Legend, that’s my guy. I’ve always liked him,” Duke said. “His work ethic, not growing up with a lot, pushing yourself and always believing that you can do it. He’s done what he’s done. And I finally got me a win. It’s really nice.”
Watson’s triple bogey dropped him from the outright lead into a tie for third. That became solo fourth when Graham DeLaet birdied the final hole, capping a 69. J.J. Henry (68) and Webb Simpson (65) tied for fifth at 9 under.
US Open champion Justin Rose (71) tied for 13th, and Keegan Bradley (69) was another shot back at 5 under.