KAPALUA » Every day brought another reminder to Ken Duke of what it means to finally be a PGA Tour winner.
When he was fishing during the offseason, someone passing by in a boat would greet him with congratulations. A few days before Christmas, he was sifting through a stack of mail when he came across a cream envelope with impeccable writing and a postmark from Augusta, Ga. — his official invitation to the Masters. Then he learned he was being inducted next year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
All that before he boarded a plane for paradise.
"This is the way I pictured this place, just like this," Duke said as he gazed at an emerald green fairway at Kapalua with the blazing blue Pacific Ocean on the horizon. "It’s breathtaking. Every shot, you look at the water. You’ve just got to soak it in."
That he can manage.
Duke is among 13 players who are eligible for the first time to play in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which starts Friday. It might be hard to find anyone who appreciates being here more.
Diagnosed with scoliosis when he was in the seventh grade, Duke had a 16-inch rod inserted in his back to correct the curvature in his spine. His was a "C” shape, and the top of his spin had gone from 40 degrees to 72 degrees just before surgery. It was starting to put pressure on his lungs. Even now, Duke occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night gasping for a full breath.
"If you would have told me back then I was going to be a professional athlete, I’d say you were crazy," Duke said. "My doctor says the same thing now."
He couldn’t afford to take a partial scholarship out of state, so he went to Henderson State in Arkansas, and then worked in a pro shop for a couple of years trying to hone his game and drum up financial support. He didn’t turn pro until he was 25 — Tiger Woods had won six majors at that age — and spent 10 years toiling on smaller tours before he finally reached the big leagues.
It all was made worthwhile in June when the 44-year-old Duke won the Travelers Championship in a playoff.
"It took me 10 years to get to the tour," Duke said. "And it took me 10 years to win."
This won’t be his first trip to Augusta National. Duke reached the Tour Championship in 2008, which got him into the Masters for the first time. He still has his first invitation on the wall in a frame. He goes back to the Masters this time as a PGA Tour winner, which to him makes it even more gratifying.
Kapalua is not a bad place to be, either. There’s only one way to get into the field, and that’s by winning.
"It feels really good here," he said. "You watch this tournament every year, and that’s the one tournament I never played in. My wife said when I won, ‘We can go to Kapalua.’ I said, ‘We can go to Augusta.’ That was the discrepancy."
But he sees one parallel to two tournaments that could not be any more different — once you’re there, you want to go back.
Dustin Johnson is back at Kapalua for the sixth straight year. Matt Kuchar is playing for the fifth time. Jordan Spieth is here for the first time, and with his talent, figures to be back plenty. Duke is not the kind of player who looks at this event as just another week on the schedule.
"We were trying to think the other night of all these guys who win every year," Duke said, shaking his head. "It’s like Augusta. You get a piece of it, you want to come back here. That’s something I’m going to work hard on the next couple of years. I want to get back here."
He has not forgotten what he went through to get here.
When he was voted PGA Tour player of the month after his win in Hartford, he donated the $50,000 award to the Stephens Spine Institute in Arkansas, this after writing a personal check for $25,000 to the charities of the Travelers Championship after he won.
He goes with his doctor, Richard McCarthy, a few times a year to meet with children who are about to have back surgery, and Duke’s manager arranges for four or five hospital visits a year so Duke can meet with kids and help alleviate their concerns.
"When I was 10 to 15, I would have loved to have someone to talk to," he said. "You’re getting ready to go to major surgery, getting rods and pins. I was scared to death. Back then, Mom and Dad said this is what you’re supposed to do, and you’ve got to do it."
Trying to make it on tour was daunting, too. There were times in the late 1990s when Duke had to borrow money just to pay the rent, but he always seemed to pick up some cash on some mini-tour to get by.
His big break came after he won the Nationwide Tour money list in 2006 and he ran into swing coach Bob Toski.
"I used to hook the ball," he said. "I was open in my stance, but I would aim to the right and hook everything. He said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I said, ‘Nobody told me any different.’ The reason I remain open is because I have scoliosis. I can’t aim square because it gets me to push everything to the right. That’s just the way I learned to play. He just took the way my back was, and the way I had to play, and he kind of taught me from there."
Toski had him swing more to the left to play a fade, and to Duke it seemed like every shot was going straight. He’s not long off the tee, but he’s accurate. He doesn’t take the club back very far because his back won’t let him.
But he makes it work, and it has worked quite nicely. Duke is a PGA Tour winner, and he’s in good company this week.