On the latest episode of the Stick and Hack Show, Mike and Adam spoke with Ken Duke, a professional golfer who was diagnosed with Scoliosis as a child. Listen here to hear Ken discuss pro-am tournaments and how he has maintained a positive outlook on the game despite his condition.
The following excerpt has been edited for space. Check out the full interview here.
Stick and Hack: Your career has spanned two decades. How many pro-am’s have you played in, and what’s the pro-am story that you fall back on if someone said, “what was that like?”
Ken Duke: I’ve played in many, I enjoy them. You hear stories like that, but then you hear some guys that just want to have a good time. That’s the way my caddy and I have always approached the pro-am- just have a good time. But there’s a few of them (stories) that stand out in my book. When I was at the desert Bob Holt Classic back back in the day, they had the amateurs the second day. I think I shot two or three under the first day. The second day, this guy comes up to me- he’s in second place- he said, “I just want to let you know, I need a 67 or 66 out of you today. I’m in second place.” Now all of a sudden, he’s reading all of my thoughts and he’s wanting to help me with yardage- “just don’t hit it here, don’t hit there-” and this is during the tournament. This is the second day of the tournament, I’m like, “Hold on a second here. I’m trying to make a living; you’re just trying to win a gift certificate from Subway, and you want to tell me what to do?”
S&H: You’ve got an interesting story- you were diagnosed with Scoliosis at a very young age. In a sport that is all about posture, I can’t even imagine your career- but you have overcome this debilitating disease of Scoliosis. Tell us a little bit about that in that early childhood development.
Ken Duke: When I was 15, I had a routine checkup back in school, and my coach said, “You need to check this out.” The doctor said, “Hey you may need to check it out with another doctor,” and I was diagnosed with Scoliosis and wore a body cast for six months to a year. I took it off every time I played golf, or any other sport, but it was getting so bad- it (my spine) was curving into my lungs. There’s a few different types- there’s an S curve, which is a curve at the top of your spine and a curve at the bottom, or it’s a C curve, and I have the C curve. So over a four month period, as I was growing, it went from a 50 degree to 70 degree curve, kind of like a C. My doctor said, “It’s pushing into your lungs, you can’t condition very well with all these sports you’re playing, so we need to have surgery.” So, I have a 16 inch steel rod in my back to this day. It’s 38 degrees now.
The technology they’ve come up with nowadays… it’s just unbelievable. Golf is crazy and everybody swings differently, and when I met Bob, my teacher, he didn’t know about my back. When I explained it to him, he said, “Okay, this is why you take the golf club back very short instead of up to parallel, and we’re gonna have to adjust for this,” and I know a few people like Nick Valdos made some comments like, “I can’t believe he doesn’t take the golf club back even further,” but he didn’t really understand why; but after two or three more months, he did finally did some research and saw that I had back surgery, and I’m restricted to take it back further than that. But, I’ve been healthy. I’ve been lucky. I do a lot of hospital visits all over the United States. My manager does a good job with getting me into different places and meeting kids, meeting doctors, giving back. Seeing a friendly face instead of seeing their doctors and nurses all the time, and knowing that some of these kids are never getting out of a wheelchair- it’s sad. But I’m doing everything I can to spread the word. People reach out to me on social media all the time- “Hey, I’m going in for my back surgery in a month. Do you think that I can play golf again?” And I end up calling them, or we talk about it and then they reach out to me after the fact. But I’ve been lucky so far. Very lucky so far.
S&H: You’ve really experienced, I would say, the gambit of emotions on the PGA Tour. You’ve been a winner- you’ve had to go through losing your card and earning it back. How have you been able to stay mentally tough, and sustain a career on the PGA Tour and now the Champions Tour, and not let that grind get the best of you? That’s one of the things a lot of guys on tour talk about- that grind and how difficult and how that can wear on you over the years.
Ken Duke: There’s a lot of different ways and everyone stretches out and reaches out differently. For me, I get away from the game, I’ll go fish a lot. That’s what I love to do when I’m off season. Sometimes, you need that mind and body just to rest, but then you gotta think, “I’ve hit this shot a thousand times, there’s no reason why I can’t do it again.” And sometimes, you just have to say “I gotta do it,” just believe in yourself as much as possible and that’s why you practice this, just keep fighting. I’ve never been somebody that just gives up. I’ve always been a fighter. I’ve, many times, on tour I’ve shot two or three over on the front, it’s about four or five under on the back and end up making the cut and finish top 15. You just put your head down in this grind and that’s all we know how to do, and that’s really I know how to do. I was brought up with not a lot of money, my parents were nine to five people, and I just always fought and did the best I could do.
S&H: You have had that type of career where you’ve had enough success to continue on but you’ve also had enough opportunities to learn and to come at this with that same attitude… you really had to fight through some things. Mike you alluded to it a second ago, losing your card- I can’t even imagine what that process is like. I hear how stressful it is but when you are a professional golfer and you no longer then have the opportunity to play professional golf on the highest stage, what happens to you mentally, and what do you start doing to get back to that next phase?
Ken Duke: Well you either just give up, which we all see a lot of people do- they just give up and say, “Okay, I’m going to get a job.” A number of young athletes that started out playing a lot better than I was, after a couple years they think, “I just can’t make it.” And people say, “Well, you’re just a quitter. You can’t give up.” Then you just give up, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes. Or you just have to put your head down, just grind it out and have a break here and there, and believe in what you can do and believe in your game. You can’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing because it’s totally different in this game of golf.
I’ve always been a Jack Nicklaus fan, I’ve been a Larry Bird fan. Those are my two athletes that just worked hard and have had a lot of success and just believed in what they’ve done and pushed forward. They believe in themselves. Getting a chance to work with the hall of famer Bob Toski since 2006- sometimes I don’t even go the range and hit balls because he has you so mentally jacked up, that you just want to go play as much as you can and you just believe that you can hit any shot and make any kind of putt. The guys that he used to hang around- Hogan and Snead and Demaret and Byron Nelson- it’s priceless. Those guys are hall of famers, getting those good vibes and positive energy that he passes on… it’s been a blessing for my career since 2006.
S&H: When you’re thinking about your career, do you love the spot you’re at today in the Champions Tour? There’s pressure and stress of course, but you’re still earning a living. This is your job, this is what you love. But is it different for you mentally on the Champions Tour than it was on the PGA Tour?
Ken Duke: Exactly. Two totally different tours. It seems like a job on the PGA Tour, you have to make a cut. On the Champions Tour, we do not have cuts. Everyone’s laid back. You see all the hall of famers out there with everyone and they’ll come out there, hit some balls, eat lunch then they’ll leave, they’ll take a nap and they may come back. You know you don’t see that on the PGA, where everybody’s working out in the morning, playing, working out again, working on the game, and having their coaches and their teachers and everybody out there. It’s a totally different mindset, but I love both tours. I wish I could play a few more tour events. But the Champions Tour, for me, is where it’s at. It’s a bunch of good guys and it’s just a laid-back environment. It’s really fun.
Key takeaway: Having a positive attitude and believing in your abilities can help the grind.
Check out the rest of the interview here, as well as episode’s Show After the Show, where Adam and Mike discuss their own takeaways and reflect on their discussion with Ken:
Ashley is from Indianapolis, IN and is the hackiest of hacks. She has only practiced the sport for less than a year, but enjoys it and once had a really good drive. When she's not chunking up the driving range, she delights in cooking, film studies, and exercising.
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