Miceli: Ken Duke's unlikely journey to Tour

Ken Duke during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

On the surface, the Ken Duke story is like many on the PGA Tour: Good player from middle America makes it to golf’s big leagues, can’t keep it going and has to return to the minors before earning another call-up.

The difference between Duke and his Tour brethren is that since age 15, Duke has been playing golf with a rod running from his shoulder blade to his tail bone to correct scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of his spine.

Duke, 43, tied for seventh at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

As a boy in Arkansas, Duke played baseball and golf. By his early teens, his spine was forming a “C” shape and starting to push into his lungs, causing shortness of breath and prompting surgery.

In October 1984, Duke’s back was curved by 52 degrees and doctors said surgery was imminent for the 15-year-old. On February 25, 1985, the day of the surgery, Duke’s spine was at 72 degrees and worsening. Once the rod was inserted during the surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, the curve of Duke’s back was set at 38 degrees, which is within the range of normal, and that’s where it has stayed ever since.

“I grew 2 1/2 inches,” said Duke, recalling the immediate effects of the operation. “I was in there for a week, and it was this one floor, I had to walk around, so whenever I had the strength to do that, I could leave, and it took me a week to do it.”

Duke would convalesce for four months before being medically cleared to hit balls, though the driver remained off-limits because of doctors’ concerns about his overswinging.

“I just took that 4‑wood and just hit it out there as far as I could hit it, and that was it,” Duke said. “I had to bend down on my knee to tee the ball up because I had a brace on. It was weird. It was just kind of one of those things. When you have something like that, you find a way to make it work.”

Duke played in the conference championship for Arkadelphia High School just five months after his surgery and won, shooting a 77 as a 10th-grader.

But in the end, Duke’s swing would never be like that of most professional golfers. The rod would restrict movement on his right side and shorten his backswing.

During his college career at Henderson State in Arkadelphia and for most of his professional career, Duke just dealt with the restriction from his scoliosis. After losing his Tour card in 2010, Duke decided to address the issue head-on, hiring a trainer not to increase strength but also flexibility.

“He’s not going to be able to get the rotation that other people can get,” said Beth Berkholtz, Duke’s trainer for the past year. “Plus, he tends to have tightness in his right upper hip, lower back, and that’s very common with a person with scoliosis. He’s a tremendous compensator.”

Duke works out now five to six days a week with weights, core exercise and stretching to allow his lower body to work separately from his upper body. Some of the byproducts beyond the obvious strengthening have been weight loss and improved endurance.

“You’ll notice within the last year or so, his Saturdays and Sundays are much stronger,” Berkholtz said of Duke’s finishes on the weekends. “He used to fade, get tired, so his endurance is better, and that’s because of his training and his weight loss.”

Duke agrees that the weight loss of 18 pounds in the first nine months has help tremendously, but his return to the Nationwide Tour also helped prepare him for 2012 and what he hopes is an extended stay on the PGA Tour.

“I feel like I could win every tournament,” Duke said earlier this year in Hawaii. “I feel like I belong here. There’s no reason why I can’t play here. My game is that good right now. My health is good. My confidence is good. There’s no reason why. I mean, these guys I played with and competed with before and done well, there’s no reason why I can’t. So that’s what I think every week.”

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