The clock was ticking down on Fred Funk’s Thursday tee time and Ken Duke was batting a few balls around the putting green, keeping a watchful eye on Funk on the driving range.
In his first season on the PGA Tour Champions, Duke “badly” wanted to play in the Bridgestone Senior Players. The only time he’d competed at Firestone Country Club was in 2013, when his lone PGA Tour victory in the Travelers earned him a spot in the World Golf Championships event.
He called Senior Players tournament director Don Padgett III trying to get a spot in the 78-man field, but Padgett had no openings. Duke, 50, came to Akron as the first alternate.
Funk, 63, told Duke his back had been bothering him all week, so Duke knew he had a chance. Duke said a few others were “aching here, aching there.” But Funk told Duke he was going to practice on Wednesday, then get treatment. Duke said Funk spent a long time at the course, so Duke wasn’t optimistic.
When Duke saw Funk on Thursday morning, Funk told him he was trying to get his back worked on again. Caught in a tough spot because he and Funk are friends from their tour days, Duke was putting, watching, waiting, hoping.
“You just never know. I saw him hit a few balls. I thought he was hitting it fine, but he said he couldn’t get his back loosened up,” Duke said.
Funk withdrew, practically at the last minute.
Although he has limited experience on the demanding South Course, Duke has made the most of his opportunity. He shot a 1-over 71 in Friday’s second round and stands at even par and tied for 11th, 9 strokes behind leader Retief Goosen. On Thursday, Duke was one of only 15 players to finish before rain suspended play and the only one to break par with a 1-under 69.
“I sent him a text last night and said, ‘Fred, what a classy guy you are. Thank you so much,’ ” Duke said Friday. “It’s very classy that he did not take the spot and try to play and hurt himself and withdraw after four or five holes. Give it to someone else that’s going to play.
"He didn’t do it just because he knew it was me."
Asked why he was so intent on playing at Firestone, Duke said: “It’s a great golf course and we all know that. Par’s a good score around here. The people are always great, they always turn out for it, and it’s just a great area. Luckily, I got a chance to play.”
Luck has been on Duke’s side before. Perhaps never more than in 1985, when he was in the ninth grade.
As a seventh-grader growing up in Arkansas, Duke was diagnosed with scoliosis. At that time, he had a 26 percent curvature and doctors recommended he wear a back brace 23 hours a day. Two years later, he said the curvature was at 72 percent and he underwent surgery to have a 16-inch rod attached to his spine.
It’s still there.
Without that operation, the pressure on Duke’s heart and lungs could have become life-threatening. Amazingly, Duke returned to his high school golf team months later and, playing in a brace, won medalist honors at the district tournament.
The game led him to Henderson State University, then the PGA Tour in 2004. He also played on the then-Web.com Tour, his longest stints coming in 2005-06 and 2010-11.
When he visits hospitals and talks to children in the same situation he faced, Duke is reminded how lucky he is.
“It’s tough. Some of these kids I know are not getting out of wheelchairs. It’s very sad,” Duke said. “I’ve talked to a bunch of kids, they’ve had multiple surgeries because their body didn’t accept what product was going in and I’ve only had one surgery. Again, I’m lucky on that end.”
Duke bent over so it was easier to see the curvature, now at 38 percent. The rod must be checked every year. He said with new technology, now surgery can take out the curve and insert two rods to make the spine more stable.
“Back in ’85 when I had it done, that’s all they knew,” he said.
Given a chance to play golf again, Duke has devoted much of his life to charity.
In 2009, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences established the Ken Duke Endowed Chair in Scoliosis. He helped raise money for the Ken Duke Golf Center, which opened in 2016 on the campus of Henderson State. When he won the Travelers Championship, he wrote a personal check for $25,000 to the tournament’s charities before he left TPC River Highlands.
“It’s never been about me. It’s always been about giving back to help others,” Duke said. “At my college we built that a few years ago and our girls and boys teams are doing wonderful.”
Although the wins haven’t been plentiful, there have been times to cherish, like when he and Carson Daly of “The Voice” and “Today” won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“Getting a chance to play with Carson at Pebble ... Pebble, enough said. He grew up around that area and he played tremendous that week and I helped him a couple times,” Duke said. “I promise you, him and I will never forget it, we talk about it all the time.
“He couldn’t play last year and I couldn’t either. Maybe we go back again.”
Duke wasn’t happy with his round on Friday, except for the long par-saving putt he rolled in on 18. But he had a firm grasp of the bigger picture.
“I’m very happy to be here thanks to Fred. I didn’t play well today, but I’m fine,” Duke said.
It’s a wonder he didn’t mention lucky, too.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.