THE PERFECT CHAMPION
The next time Ken Duke sees the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, six weeks from now, when he returns to defend his Travelers Championship title, the course and the conditions are certain to be a lot different from the last time he saw it, two days ago, when it was much more reminiscent of mid winter than the mid summer conditions that annually accompany the local PGA Tour stop.
As much as everything else may change it’s a safe bet it will be the same old Ken Duke who returns to the site of his playoff victory of a year ago. If one word describes Ken Duke, it’s consistency. He’s consistently low key, humble, unassuming, totally void of ego. With one stroke of his soft spoken, small town eloquence Ken Duke did more for the image of Tiger Woods than a public relations army has been able to accomplish in the last five years. “Tiger put his hand out to me”, Duke said during his visit to our market this week, referencing a meeting on the practice tee at Congressional a week after his win here, “And he said, ‘Congratulations.'” “That”, said Duke, “Made me feel like I belong here.”
Duke was referring to the PGA Tour, but it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t belong just about anywhere. It’s hard to imagine we’ve had a more compelling champion in the 62 year history of our event. Bubba was emotional, and his was a great story, getting that first Tour win in time for his father to see it. Sam Snead won here and certainly no more legendary career ever got it’s start with a win in Hartford than that of Arnold Palmer. But for this tournament and what it represents, to the community, and to the PGA Tour, Ken Duke is a perfect fit.
To so many of the charitable organizations that make up the heart of the Connecticut community the Travelers Championship is the life force that annually pumps nearly a million and a half dollars into their coffers, none doing more heart lifting work that Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, offering the adventures of childhood and a worry free time away from dealing with life threatening illnesses for so many young people.
“We found an amazing support system called the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp”, said Lisa Duffy, who’s son, Luke, is suffering from a rare immune system disease.
“My pain is like a prickly cactus on a hot day”, Luke told the gathering at the TPC, “I feel it morning, noon and night.”
Providing the fuel that generates so much effective work by so many charities isn’t part of any grand public relations campaign for the tournament. “This is our DNA”, said tournament director Nathan Grube, who oversees the event that annually turns all proceeds back to the community, “This is who we are. For those of you who think this is about a golf tournament, it’s about so much more.”
“Some tournaments don’t feel like a family to me”, said Ken Duke, in anticipation of his defense here, “They’re just another event. This feels like family.”
Duke sees himself as nothing more than a small town boy from Hope, Arkansas, who took as much delight in a personalized fishing pole and tackle box he recieved from the Travelers as he takes in the trophy he won here last june. He likens himself to his sports hero, Larry Bird, a kid who “Didn’t have a lot (from a)family that had to work hard to put food on the table and always went the extra mile.”
That sums up Ken Duke, who, in his mid 40’s overcame a lifetime of illness and surgery to become a Tour champion, winner of the 2014 golf writers Ben Hogan award for the golfer who best exemplifies Hogan’s spirit of perserverence. The humble small town boy devoted to family and community The perfect champion for the Travelers Championship, more than a golf tournament, the heart of a community.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.