Capturing History with Ink and Watercolors

Her house sits with a view of a golf course in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, however she closes the blinds, purposely ignoring the beauty of Rock Harbor Golf Course outside her window.

A significant amount of her time has involved the painting of golfers, but she doesn’t play golf.

She has also never spent any time with her subjects, all of them PGA TOUR tournament winners and many the best who ever played the game.

Meet Chris Duke, a classically trained artist who works in watercolors and pen and ink, and, annually, tells the stories through her art of the winner of each year’s PLAYERS Championship winner. A golf background isn’t necessary. Immense talent is.

So, shortly after Scottie Scheffler’s dominant five-stroke 2023 victory at TPC Sawgrass, Duke went to work starting with watercolors first and then adding the ink on top.

“I just enjoy pen and ink very much,” she says. She explains that she closes the blinds so she can control the lighting and make it the same regardless of the time of day she’s painting.

A typical day for Duke, a Detroit native, is to enter what she calls her work room—her studio—at around 9 a.m. She could easily work from dawn to dusk, but she forces herself to stop at in the late afternoon so she can exercise and take a step away from the job at hand.

“After a bunch of hours, it’s extremely wise to take a break so you can look at your work fresh the next morning.

As she says, “Creating art is adventure, a battle of wits with what is yet unrealized on a canvas or paper.”

For this job as the person who successfully captures the emotions of THE PLAYERS’ champions, it’s a fun, challenging job, one Duke says never feels daunting.

“I enjoy painting them because they really are heroic,” Duke says of those who walk away from TPC Sawgrass with the trophy. Thinking back to her work in March and April last year, as she began depicting Scheffler winning his first PLAYERS, she didn’t consider how she had approached a subject in the past. Her focus was only on this current assignment.

“Oh, I enjoy designing each painting every year. I really do. I really enjoyed painting Scheffler. I wanted to paint him as if he was in the middle of the best day of his life, whether it was or not,” she explains.

Her PLAYERS’ painting odyssey all began following Adam Scott’s 2004 victory. The PGA TOUR, and by extension THE PLAYERS Championship, contacted Duke, asking her if she would be interested in not only painting Scott but also, retroactively, putting together pieces for all the past champions, dating to the tournament’s inception in 1974. With the TOUR building a new clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass, it wanted each champion to have his own piece of art that told his story.

Oh, I enjoy designing each painting every year. I really do. I really enjoyed painting Scheffler. I wanted to paint him as if he was in the middle of the best day of his life.

Chris Duke

Duke jumped right in, with the charge that multiple tournament winners would have their stories told in one painting instead of, in the case of Jack Nicklaus, three (the Golden Bear won the tournament in 1974, 1976 and 1978 and is the tournament’s only three-time champ. Two-time winners are Fred Couples (1984 and 1996), Steve Elkington (1991 and 1997) and Davis Love III (1992 and 2003). When Tiger Woods won his second PLAYERS, in 2013, to go with his 2001 title, the TOUR asked her to create an entirely new Woods piece celebrating both wins.

The usual process after a tournament: the TOUR sends Duke numerous photos of the winner. He may be lining up a putt, celebrating, holding the trophy, hitting a tee shot, blasting out of the bunker, whatever. She examines and studies the photos then paints a full-head portrait before adding in her own touches, including action images. In addition, she typically includes a portion of the scorecard, the flag of the winner’s country and words that help tell the story. For Scott, his art piece says the following: “After enjoying as much as a five-stroke lead in the final round, Australian Adam Scott’s 2004 PLAYERS Championship victory came down to a pressure-packed 10-foot bogey putt on the 72nd green to secure a one-stroke victory. Scott became the youngest winner, at age 23.”

Duke thinks back fondly on that first commissioned piece. In it, Duke painted Scott with a determined look on his face. Most of her subsequent pieces show the winner smiling. That first one, though, stands out.

“I guess the one I love the best is Adam because I painted him as serious, which is OK if it’s a serious portraiture, which I thought that one was.”

After Duke finished Scott’s, she then painted 2005 champion Fred Funk and 2006 winner Stephen Ames and the winners between 1974 and 2003. They all enjoyed their unveiling when the Mediterranean-style clubhouse opened prior to the 2007 PLAYERS. She’s painted each subsequent champion after the fact and will go to work again sometime next week after the tournament crowns its 2024 champ.

“Though I may be really good at drawing, there is a long, solo journey from the beginning to completion of a painting, a million decisions. It often feels like a mini-drama,” she adds. “By contrast, the weekend of THE PLAYERS is a grand, epic drama that plays out in live time before millions of viewers perched on the edge of their seats. It’s an exciting time. We don’t know where the emerging plot will take us. And we love these guys.”

And she loves painting them.