CROMWELL, Conn. — If you looked closely — and knew who to look for — the unlikeliest of friendships was on display late in the final round of last year’s Travelers Championship.
A journeyman from Arkansas in search of his first PGA Tour victory had called a former corrections officer from Lowell into the scoring trailer to watch on television as the last groups finished, the journeyman leading by one shot. When the nearby crowd erupted, they knew it meant a chip-in birdie, which meant a playoff, which meant there was work left to do. So Fred Smith gave Ken Duke a pep talk.
“I look right at him and say, ‘Did you think this was going to be easy? Here you are, 44, never won before, and now you’ve got a 50/50 chance. Go do it,’ ” Smith said.
Duke did it, beating Chris Stroud on the second playoff hole. Without his wife or two daughters in attendance, Duke happily celebrated on the 18th green at TPC River Highlands, then later in the clubhouse, with Smith and the others from Massachusetts who have formed Team Duke, the unofficial fan club that owes its start to the most random of meetings.
Perhaps tagging the friendship as unlikely, though, is a disservice to Duke.
“That’s just me,” Duke said on Tuesday, sitting inside the clubhouse at TPC River Highlands, enjoying the spoils of media day in advance of this year’s Travelers Championship, where he will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time. “Meeting people, having them take the time to maybe send me an e-mail or a text message, saying, ‘We’re following you, good playing, better luck next time,’ it’s encouraging. It’s always good to see a familiar face. It’s really nice to have that out here.
“I’m like that with a lot of people, but with Fred it was just different. We just kept in touch, and it’s gotten closer.”
Duke met Smith in 2007, after a Red Sox game at Fenway Park during Deutsche Bank Championship week. Smith, attending the game with his father, Fred Sr., and his younger brothers, Brian and Jeff, noticed that Duke’s car was in a tight parking spot, and he offered to serve as the driver’s directional guide. He also noticed the Deutsche Bank tournament logo on the courtesy car, asked who he was, and Duke introduced himself. Which didn’t help the Smiths one bit.
“My dad and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Who the heck is Ken Duke?’ ” Smith said.
Curious, the Smiths — more avid golf fans than avid golfers — did some research and began following and rooting for the player they happened to meet by chance outside Fenway. A year later, with Duke again playing in the Deutsche Bank Championship, Smith showed up for the final round wearing a T-shirt on which he wrote “Ken Duke’s #1 Fan,” talked to him after the round, and reminded him about their introduction. The friendship grew from there.
“I’m not afraid to talk. Good people lead into good people, I truly believe that, and that’s how Ken came along,” said Smith, a 34-year-old who gave up being a corrections officer a few years ago to start an events business. “What started as a fun thing has turned into a true friendship. I’m just being who I am. I’m a positive thinker, work hard, try not to let things get to me, but I let good things come to me, and over time it does. I think Ken’s like that, too.”
During Deutsche Bank Championship week, Smith invites Duke over for a cookout, where one year he met boxer Micky Ward. As part of his attempt at motivation, Smith had sent Duke a clip of the epic ninth round from the first Ward-Arturo Gatti fight. Only one problem: Unbeknownst to Smith, Duke was a Gatti fan (they’re friends).
“I called him up and said, ‘Why’d you send me this? I didn’t want Ward to win, I wanted [Gatti] to win, because I know Arturo,’ ” Duke said. “But Micky came over and signed a glove for me, that was pretty cool. It was great to meet him, nice guy. That was a special moment.”
Duke returned the favor earlier this year when he invited Smith to attend the Masters, part of a large friends and family group that required two rental houses. Smith stayed in a bedroom opposite Bob Toski, a Massachusetts native who won five times on the PGA Tour — including the 1953 Travelers Championship, when it was known as the Insurance City Open — and has been Duke’s only golf teacher, still going strong at age 87.
“I still can’t thank [Duke] enough. For most people, going to the Masters is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or never,” Smith said. “I just went along for the ride, did everything I could to be a positive member of the crew.”
Duke missed the cut at the Masters, one of just three he’s missed in 14 tour starts this season. But he also has no finish better than a tie for 15th. He’s hoping to find the form that allowed him to finally break through last year at the Travelers, in his 187th PGA Tour event.
“I don’t start fast, I’m a slow starter, but hopefully in the summer is when I get going,” Duke said. “Your confidence level goes up; you’re a tour winner, not just a tour player.”
It was a victory Smith predicted to ESPN’s Chris Berman at the beginning of the week, during another random encounter. He’ll be leading the Team Duke charge at the Travelers again this year, June 19-22 — look for the special shirts — and hopefully Labor Day weekend at the Deutsche Bank Championship (assuming Duke qualifies). And from afar during the other weeks, following online, and sprinkled with e-mails and text messages.
“Where do I fit in? I like to tell Ken and [caddie] Chris [Carpenter] that I’m the mental coach. They usually respond that I’m the mental case,” Smith said. “Bottom line, we just have fun. When he does well, it makes me happy, because he’s passionate about what he does. There’s been many times when he could have walked away and done something else. But he hasn’t. Ken’s easy to root for.”