BETHESDA, MD.: Bob Toski boasted that’s he’s the only 86-year-old golf instructor who’s produced a 44-year-old winner.
“If you find one, have him call me, I’d like to find out how smart he is,” Toski joked.
That 44-year-old, Ken Duke, will let Toski brag all he wants. After he earned his first PGA Tour victory, capturing the Travelers Championship in a playoff on June 23, Duke paid tribute to Toski, saying, “I wouldn’t be here now if I would have never met him.”
With Toski’s help, Duke became the oldest winner on tour since 1995, when Ed Dougherty prevailed at age 47. The triumph earned Duke a spot this week in his first World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
Toski suspects Duke was about to give up his professional career when they first crossed paths in January 2006.
Duke had played on the Canadian, Asian, South American and Web.com tours and was waiting for his breakthrough. Toski, the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 1954, gave up his competitive career at age 30 to spend more time with his family. He became a renowned golf instructor, counting Tom Kite, Judy Rankin, Jane Blalock, Pat Bradley, Birdie Kim, Bruce Crampton and Bruce Devlin among his pupils.
Looking for help
After the final round of a pro-am at St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Fla., Duke approached Toski and asked if he would give him lessons.
“When he showed up at my teaching center, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Toski recalled during a telephone interview from his home in Boca Raton earlier this month. “He was aiming left and swinging right. You never do that in golf. He was push-fading the ball and the ball would end up 20, 30, 40 yards right of where he was aiming.”
Duke was diagnosed with scoliosis when he was in the seventh grade. Two years later he underwent surgery to attach a 16-inch metal rod to his spine, but it didn’t stop him from playing on his high school golf team.
But before he saw Toski, he’d never taken a lot of lessons. Duke said his parents struggled to make ends meet while he was growing up in Hope, Ark., and he had been forced to practice at 6 or 7 a.m. before he went to school.
New swing easier on back
When he went to see Toski, Duke said the swing Toski showed him seemed “easier” with his back problems. Toski said most of the recommendations he made were minor.
“No one’s ever told me the way to swing the club,” Duke said in Cromwell, Conn.
Toski said Duke was a quick study.
“After about the second time he started playing real well, he started scoring and was in contention on the Nationwide,” Toski said. “He called me and said, ‘Hell, Bob, this is like stealing.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to steal, just go to the bank every week with a check.’
“He became a much better driver, but he was always suspect with his putting. He was a streak putter. We tried to make changes with his stroke. He’s not a rhythm putter. Finally he’s learned to do both.”
That was evident in his Travelers victory, which came in his 187th start on the PGA Tour.
Duke rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt during the final round and made a 2½-footer for birdie on the second playoff hole to beat Chris Stroud, who had chipped in from 51 feet on No. 18. Bubba Watson had fallen out of contention when he hit into the water at the par-3 16th hole.
Teachers’ experience big
Afterward, Duke spoke of what he’d learned from Toski.
“The guy has played with Hogan and Snead and Demaret and all of them,” Duke said. “Sometimes I go down to his place and we just talk. We might not even hit any balls. The way he says things, it might all be the same, but it seems like it’s different every time we talk and every time we’re on the range.
‘‘That’s the knowledge of somebody like that, because he’s played with the best, he’s taught the best.
Not afraid to win
Weeks later, Toski still speaks proudly of Duke.
“Golf is teaching physically and psychologically. My job was to prepare him to compete and try to win, not just play,” Toski said. “I knew he had the intestinal fortitude and he had a strong mental approach to the game that would create a winner. He never lost sight of the fact he thought he could win.
“A lot of people are afraid to win, they just want to pick up a check. That wasn’t Ken Duke.”
His next time out at the AT&T National at Congressional, Duke marveled at the congratulatory texts and messages he’d received. Among those who contacted him were Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, Charles Barkley, Ray Allen and country artists Colt Ford, Mark Wills and Joe Don Rooney. Duke was also honored on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Duke was thankful for the victory’s benefits, including a spot in next year’s Masters, and especially for the two-year exemption.
“I had my best year in ’08, and in 2009, I come out and lose my card,” Duke said at Congressional. “Since I haven’t won, I had to go to the Web.com [tour]. This is a big relief.”
Toski understands that feeling.
“Trying to qualify to keep going on the tour is a lot of pressure,” Toski said. “Now he can go for those par-5s in two.
“At 44 the gates of heaven have opened for him. He’s got to walk through there and do his job.”
Family important to both
Toski said he and Duke have much in common, including the fact that they’re both big family men. Although he still teaches at Sherbrooke Country Club in Lake Worth and at St. Andrews, where he was the first golf director, Toski said he and Duke don’t talk as much as he’d like.
“I don’t like prima donnas, I run them off,” Toski said, implying there is none of that trait in Duke. “He found confidence in me, he found confidence in his game.
“Everybody’s got to have somebody. He found the somebody.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.