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Summer in Memphis can be a hot, uncomfortable affair. June 2010 was no different. On the last day of the St. Jude Classic, June 13, everyone from the players to the spectators tried to find respite from the unrelenting sun. When Lee Westwood finally won the tournament on the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff, nearly everyone expected him to find his way to the club house to cool off while awaiting the trophy presentation.
Instead, Westwood joined a gathering of St. Jude patients who had come down to the green. Westwood settled on a chair near the kids, chatted with them amiably and reached into his pocket. What he did next would make a lasting impression on one of the patients, 8-year-old Ethan.
Westwood took out the golf ball that he had just putted in to birdie the fourth playoff hole to win the tournament. He handed the ball to Ethan, who smiled broadly.
It was a bright moment for a family who had endured a dark time.
Months earlier, Ethan's parents, Missy and Kevin, had been devastated when Ethan was found to suffer from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. The news was hard on everyone, including Ethan's twin brother Cooper. Overnight, life changed dramatically. Days were suddenly filled up with chemotherapy, hospital stays, missed school and bouts of separation for the twins as Ethan fought for his life at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
As the golf tournament neared, Missy and Kevin still struggled to accept their new reality. The twins' birthday was approaching, but given Ethan's low immunity counts and precarious health, Missy and Kevin realized that a party for the twins simply wasn't possible. But then the call came in early June. Ethan and a number of other St. Jude patients were invited to participate in the Honorary Caddie Experience during the Pro Am at the St. Jude Classic. Ethan's whole family, including his brother, could participate. Missy and Kevin hoped it would help the boys get through the disappointment of not having a birthday party. They said yes to the invitation.
On the day of the Pro Am, Ethan was randomly paired with Lee Westwood to be his honorary caddie. Missy and Kevin relished the sight of Ethan walking alongside of Westwood and carrying his putter from the 11th hole tee box to the green, the same putter Westwood would use to capture the tournament. Treatment had started to take a toll on Ethan; his hair had fallen out and his weight had dropped. But at that moment, he looked like any other kid out on the golf course.
"For those 20 minutes, Ethan wasn't a leukemia patient," Kevin said. "He was Ethan hanging out with Lee Westwood. How cool is that? It allowed all of us to take some time away from the storm we were in."
Westwood gave Ethan a signed golf glove and joked with the kids gathered on the green.
"We got to see Ethan and all the other patients smile and be happy," said Missy. "They weren't in chemotherapy or having a procedure at the hospital, they were being regular kids. Ethan got to be just a kid."
Being an honorary caddie for Westwood would have been good enough for Ethan, but his interactions with the golfer weren't over yet. Four days later, Westwood won the tournament. He handed Ethan the winning golf ball, so that he, too, could share in the victory of the day.
The golf ball Westwood gave to Ethan is now nestled in a special box that Missy and Kevin have been putting together for Ethan and Cooper when they get older. Inside are mementos, ones they hope will remind the boys that in the midst of Ethan's battle against cancer, there were moments of happiness.
In the time that has passed since that day, Ethan has appeared in an Eagles for St. Jude commercial with Loren Roberts, who gave him tips on putting. These experiences have helped Ethan along the way to muster the courage and strength he needs to face treatment. It helps his parents, too.
"After seeing the players interact with the kids, I'm a much bigger fan," said Missy. "What they do for St. Jude is amazing. When you're going through something like we are, it's huge when you see people wanting to give, wanting to help."
Missy and Kevin remember the smile Lee Westwood brought to Ethan's face through a simple gesture of handing him a golf ball. "When parents can see their kids enjoying themselves, it lifts a burden off of them," Kevin said.
Lee Westwood is more than just the winner of the St. Jude Classic and the number one player in the world. He is a champion of a St. Jude patient's heart.