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For almost four decades, Norm Duke has had a front-row seat while competing against some of the best bowlers in the world.
The PBA Hall of Famer won his 40th PBA title last season on his way to earning more than $105,000. And in the early part of 2018 he made a key change that he admits led to his current success.
If you’ve ever watched Duke bowl before, you may have noticed he is particular about the feel he has in his thumbhole. He has been known to work his thumbhole by adding and removing tape until he gets just the right feel.
While working a ball out and shaping the thumbhole with a cutting knife early in 2018, he experienced some pain on the inside of his right elbow. Duke learned he had a condition known as Golfer’s Elbow, a form of tendinosis.
Tendinosis is a degeneration of the tendon’s collagen is response to chronic overuse. Every time he tried to work on a new ball or fix his equipment the pain flared up, which kept him from fixing any balls the way he wanted, forcing him to come up with a solution.
“As much testing as I’ve done with interchangeable grips, I couldn’t find one that accommodated me in all ways, so I was always struggling,” said Duke, who will begin the 2020 season at the PBA Hall of Fame Classic starting Wednesday.
He turned to Cecil Scarboro, PBA & PWBA Tour Rep/Product Specialist at VISE and Tom Laskow with ProEdge Bowling. Scarboro recalls making Duke a vinyl slug about four years ago but said Duke hated it, so he got to work using different materials to create new thumbholes for Duke to try.
“It was a huge change for him and he put his career in my hand,” Scarboro said. “I wasn’t going to let him down. His feedback was phenomenal throughout the process.”
As Scarboro tried to find the first mixture of materials to create a comfortable thumbhole, he recalls telling Duke, “I’m going to play chemist.” So he would sit in his hotel room pouring new thumbholes. Some materials he chose to mix together would shatter in front of him.
“I eventually took parts of my material and parts of Laskow’s material, and I knew we had something," Scarboro said.
“It took us awhile to get it to where I could actually bowl with it without pain,” Duke admits. “Once we got it right, it wasn’t long before I actually preferred it. So it turned out to be a really good thing for me, thanks to those guys.”
The first tournament Duke used his new interchangeable thumb was the 2019 Indianapolis Open.
“I had won there a few times before so I was comfortable with the bowling center,” Duke said. “My first match was against Wes Malott, my doubles partner. I knew it was one of our last times bowling against one another and that was just kind of endearing for me to focus on.”
Once Duke rolled past his good friend, he was bowling for his 39th career PBA title against Jason Belmonte.
“In my mind it’s like, ‘wow, buddy this is your chance to be cool as heck. If you lose no big deal because everybody knew you were going to lose. But if you win, it is a big deal,’” Duke said. “So I said, ‘let’s make it a big deal.’”
Duke earned the win, 237-219, thanks in part to that interchangeable thumbhole.
“He used to always fidget with tape in his thumbhole and now it’s not an issue,” Scarboro said. “I’ve been able to make one of the best bowlers in the world even better and for me, it was an honor and a privilege.”
Since missing his scheduled flight out he decided he might as well bowl the following tournament, the 2019 Jonesboro Open.
He felt sharp going in but rolled a 155 in his first game. He told himself to buck up. He got on a three-day roll that he jokes he parlayed into winning back-to-back PBA titles. And it just so happened that was title No. 40.
“It means so much now six months later,” Duke said when interviewed at the PBA Clash. “It was a foregone conclusion I would never get to 40. Even earlier (last) year I was presented a question that it was a foregone conclusion that I would never win again. The difficulty is just unbelievable.”
Duke, who was the ninth highest PBA money earner on tour last season and the only person to win back-to-back tournaments, credits his success to his new thumbhole.
“Absolutely no doubt about it,” he said. “I can go drill balls at a pace that I never could before. I can try more stuff, which is essential when you have dual patterns. You have to drill twice as many bowling balls, and I couldn’t get one done in a day. Now I can do three to four in a day easy.”
“The game is treating me so very well right now. As far as the way the industry and the bowling community treat me, it is worthwhile prolonging,” he said.
Over Duke’s decorated career he has collected valuable advice from numerous Hall of Famers including Earl Anthony.
He said, ‘A win is a win, let’s move on.’ You are only as good as your last game not your last tournament,” Duke said. “All of the Hall of Fame advice I use on a daily basis, why wouldn’t I?”
“When I look back at my career, I get to say just about every tournament there was Walter Ray Williams Jr. right across from me. Pete Weber right across from me. My first TV game was against Earl Anthony. I had a front-row seat against all of them. I am afforded that because of my age.”
Luckily, we have been afforded the chance to have a front-row seat to watching Norm Duke’s incredible career, too.