On the black Footjoy shoebox, under color, it read: “White/pizza.”
Nate, the 11-year-old St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient holding these shoes, had long since outgrown them. But “he’s kept them pristine,” his mom, Angie said. “We brought them hoping for an autograph so he can keep them forever.”
And a few minutes later Tuesday afternoon, Justin Thomas sidled up next to Nate just after completing a session on the TPC Southwind driving range.
“Thanks for bringing me good luck last year … These might be the luckiest shoes I had last year,” the defending World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational champion said. “It’s great to see you in person, not over the computer virtually.”
Whatever golfer wins this week during the annual Memphis PGA Tour stop, there will be no greater victory than that. The St. Jude kids are back on site, creating memories with the world’s best golfers as best they can while the COVID-19 pandemic surges once more because of the Delta variant.
Through this tournament’s many name changes and format changes, through sponsorship and financial struggles more than a decade ago that nearly upended the entire endeavor, St. Jude’s mission and the children it has saved have become the defining symbol of this event ever since Danny Thomas and the hospital he founded joined forces with this tournament more than 50 years ago.
More than $50 million has been raised on St. Jude’s behalf through the annual Memphis PGA Tour stop, including $7.3 million the past two years. When it was a regular PGA Tour event, now that it’s a WGC event, or once it becomes a FedEx Cup playoff event in the years to come, there is no greater legacy for professional golf in this city.
“It was sad to have an absence of the children because it’s such a big part of it. In a way, they’re iconic,” said tournament chairman Jack Sammons. “New York’s got the Yankees. L.A.’s got the Lakers. By God, we got St. Jude, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. ”
It’s because of kids like Nate. You remember Nate, right?
He’s the pizza-obsessed St. Jude patient Thomas cited as inspiration for his victory after Nate designed a pair of custom shoes with pizza slices. Thomas wore them throughout the tournament and then they were auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting St. Jude. Thomas even had a pepperoni and pineapple pizza – Nate’s favorite – delivered to Nate’s home in Tulsa, Oklahoma to commemorate their successful collaboration.
On Tuesday, they finally got to meet. Roxo, FedEx’s autonomous delivery robot, rolled up to the two of them. Inside was another pair of pizza-themed golf shoes – in Nate’s size, with his name emblazoned along the side – and two steaming hot pizzas.
“I just love it,” Nate said, and you could see the smile on Thomas’ face through the mask he was wearing.
Nate’s parents stood to the side, tears welling up in their eyes. Their son had a brain tumor diagnosed in May 2018 and finished treatment with St. Jude in April 2019.
They only found out about two weeks ago this encounter would happen.
“Whenever St. Jude asks us to participate, we feel like we have to because of how much St. Jude has given us,” said his father, Ross.
Added Angie: “We still have our Nate.”
It just wasn’t the same a year ago without in-person reminders of all the good St. Jude does for the children and families suffering from pediatric cancer. And they nearly didn’t happen again.
Even as recently as last week, it was unclear how involved St. Jude kids could be because of the renewed spread of COVID-19 throughout the country, and the lower vaccination rate in the Memphis area. Golfers, for instance, are still not able to visit patients in the hospital like they have in the past. But we’ve made enough progress that there will be a presence at TPC Southwind again.
On Wednesday, St. Jude patients were able to play in the celebrity pro-am at Spring Creek Ranch.
Kenzie, a rising high school senior who went through more than two years of chemotherapy to recover from a rare form of leukemia, will finally be officially recognized as FedEx’s Purple Eagle honoree after a year-long wait Thursday. A FedEx plane is being dedicated in her honor during a ceremony at TPC Southwind.
On Sunday, patients will again be waiting on No. 18 to greet golfers as they finish their round.
“They come back and say I still have that golf ball that Phil Mickelson gave me when he was walking off the 18th. They remember Brooks Koepka giving them his glove,” ALSAC president and CEO Richard Shadyac said. “Those are memories these kids are going to keep with them the rest of their lives and it puts a lot of things in perspective.”
They usually provide the most enduring memories from this tournament.
When Koepka won the inaugural WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in 2019, who can forget the entire gallery around No. 18 chanting, “Reed, Reed, Reed” for the St. Jude patient waiting to greet the champion.
Or even last year, when there were no spectators allowed, and recovered St. Jude patient Dakota Cunningham upstaged Jim Nantz on Saturday’s CBS telecast as a guest commentator from his living room.
Cunningham was at TPC Southwind last week on the 18th green for a tournament preview event alongside Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway, Memphis football coach Ryan Silverfield and Desmond Bane of the Memphis Grizzlies.
And it was Cunningham who eventually hit a putt to raise $20,000 for St. Jude (Hardaway chipped in an extra $5,000 donation for good measure). As he walked off the green, Cunningham then delivered a message to Shadyac: “This is my way of giving back to the institution that saved my life.”
Really, though, it’s just good to have him back at the Memphis golf tournament.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto