Muirfield Open Days: Duke shows real mettle
Seeing Ken Duke in the flesh for the first time, it struck me that with his receding hairline, greying locks and middle-age paunch, he wouldn't have been out of place in a Pierce Purcell Shield line-up. But this was the remarkable journeyman who gladdened many hearts by winning the Travelers Championship last month in his 187th tour start at the age of 44 years, four months and 25 days.
The really fascinating bit, however, is that he did it with two 16-inch titanium rods bolted to either side of his lower spine. And they've been there since he was 15. Known as a Cotrel-Dubousset (C-D) Instrumentation, its function was to correct the effects of scoliosis which caused a 72-degree curvature of his spine.
We remember his remarkable 158-yard sand-wedge approach to the 18th hole in the play-off to set up a winning birdie from two feet. And we later wondered how a player could overcome such a serious back condition in golf, of all sports.
"Everyone's golf swing is different, and my rotational movement is limited in that I only take the club back to a certain point," says Duke. "And I've got a physiotherapist for the last two-and-a-half years and she works on my flexibility and rotation."
In the company of leading coach, Pete Cowen, I watched Duke hitting shots on the practice range. "That's a powerful-looking swing," said Cowen. "You've got to remember that rotation is not about turning the bones. Do that and you'll hurt your back. It involves the muscles of your whole body and Ken has obviously found a very effective way of compensating."
Interestingly, the player, who is returning to the Open having missed the cut in 1997 and 2009, sees no connection between his inspirational tenacity and overcoming a potentially debilitating condition. "All I can remember is being told by my parents at 14 or 15 that I had to have it done, because that's what the doctor recommended," he said. "That's life. Instead of having bone-chips from my hip inserted between the vertebrae, they used tissue from my lower back."
I wondered if he had considered having the titanium rods removed, given that they had done their job of medical scaffolding, very effectively. "I concentrate on simply doing what my body can do and I've never considered having the bars removed," he said. "No reason. And I do nothing out of the ordinary by way of compensating. I just play the way I've learned to play and let the results take care of themselves."
He has also benefited significantly from hooking up with veteran coach, Bob Toski, seven years ago.
Meanwhile, Duke is conscious of his debt to medicine. "I try to make (orthopaedic) hospital visits every chance I get," he said. "Just to see affected kids, mainly aged from 13 to 16. And I talk to doctors and thank them for all they're done for scoliosis."
All of which is admirable, of course, but the thought persisted that he would make a helluva Pierce Purcell player.
CURRAGH'S ROYAL LINKS
Out on the furthest reaches of the course, overlooking the Firth of Forth, the members of Royal Musselburgh were marshalling the fifth hole in the Open Championship. Appropriately, their captain, Jim Cunningham, took prime position beside the green, having had a clubhouse lunch as a guest of the Muirfield captain earlier in the day.
When I enquired if Musselburgh was a seriously upper-crust club, he replied with a smile: "Judge for yourself. They have me as captain." He then described his occupation as a steriliser of beer pipes for a company appropriately called The Beer Piper.
We had met nearly three weeks previously at Curragh GC, where Cunningham had accepted an invitation to attend the celebration of the club's foundation on July 1, 1858, a fact established recently by its indefatigable historian, Colonel Bill Gibson. And by way of cementing a long-time link between the two clubs, Cunningham presented Curragh GC with an inscribed Scottish silver quaich.
"I had a terrific time," said Cunningham. "The hospitality was second to none." He then revealed how his own club, which was founded in 1774, had fallen foul of the local Lord Lyon which is responsible for heraldic matters in the area. "Acting on a public complaint, they have decided that our club crest is illegal and must be changed," he said with understandable bemusement. "And to have a new crest registered will cost the club almost £4,000."
It is quite an extraordinary situation to be foisted on the world's fifth oldest golf club, but they feel obliged to comply. Meanwhile, 59 Musselburgh members have been doing their duty in shifts on the long fifth. As a parting shot, I wondered how many "royal" captains were among the 10 at the Muirfield lunch. "I was the only one," was Cunningham's proud reply.
FANS KNOW THE SCORE
Intent on keeping up with the times, the Royal and Ancient are proud of the fact that the entire Muirfield course is wi-fi enabled. Which means that public and players are not short on scoring information.
Things were somewhat different back in 1929 when prospective champion, Walter Hagen, was negotiating the 72nd hole. "What do I need to tie?" Hagan enquired of the gallery.
A bemused Muirfield member helpfully replied: "As far as I can calculate, you need a 10 to tie."
So it was that with a par at the last, the American won the championship by six strokes.
LOWRY BOYS WORK IT OUT
Meeting up with Edinburgh-born Neil Manchip prompted the thought that Muirfield must have been something of a golfing home for him. "Not really," replied Shane Lowry's coach. "It's quite difficult to get on here, you know. I succeeded in playing it just a couple of times during the 1990s.
"While Muirfield was obviously aspirational, I played mostly down the road at Gullane 1, 2 and sometimes 3. With the odd game at Luftness."
As for the Lowrys: Shane was being observed by his brother, Alan, an NUI Maynooth student. Would Lowry senior attribute his links expertise to any acknowledged expert? "No," he replied. "I worked things out for myself." And Alan, who plays off scratch? "I picked things up from Shane."
WILLIE UNABLE TO BAG INVITE
Willie Aitchison is at home in Glasgow this weekend, watching The Open on television, because nobody thought to invite him to Muirfield. The man who set the template for modern caddying was, in fact, the last Scot to carry the bag of a prospective champion when he guided Lee Trevino to victory at this venue in 1972.
Now in his mid-80s, Aitchison attended his last Open at St Andrews three years ago, when wretched weather spoiled his plans to carry Trevino's bag over three holes in a special event on the Wednesday.
"Lee was furious that they cancelled it," he said. "Even with the weather the way it was, we could have done it."
Aitchison went on to talk of the enduring relationship between master and bagman. Of how he still gets a Christmas card from Trevino. And he talked about his relationship with the 1936 Wimbledon champion, Fred Perry.
"While watching every second of Andy Murray's great win, I was reminded of how I met Fred in 1967," he said. "He happened to be friendly with Roberto de Vicenzo and made a point of giving me a gift when we won the Open at Hoylake. It was three sports shirts – violet, white and red, from the company he had established.
"I was always anxious about my appearance and never went to work without shaving. So I couldn't wait to wear them. That was at a time when caddies generally wore old raincoats or the like. So when others started copying me, I believe I set a trend in changing the image of caddying."
DAWSON NOT GOING THERE
A vivid image from the eve-of-championship press conference is the look of incredulity on the face of R and A chief executive Peter Dawson when asked something of a classic question. "As you said, single-sex clubs are legal, but morally, what's the difference between men only and whites only?"
While appearing to be counting to 10, the famously urbane official replied: "Oh goodness me! I think that's a ridiculous question if I may say so. There's a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-semitism where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly, indeed. And to compare that with a men's golf club I think if frankly absurd. There's no comparison whatsoever."