St. Jude kids shine on the world stage at FedEx St. Jude Championship

Will Zalatoris has first PGA TOUR win in a contest that provides enduring support for St. Jude.

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When Will Zalatoris pulled off his first PGA Tour victory with an emotional playoff win against Sepp Straka at the FedEx St. Jude Championship Sunday in Memphis, his heart – and his feet – were grounded by the kids of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“A little man named Calvin designed my shoes last year, and he put some hippos and golf balls and all sorts of fun stuff on it. It just puts this all in perspective,” said Zalatoris, referring to the patient-inspired FootJoy shoes he donned for the 2021 tournament. This year, Zalatoris wore global-themed FootJoy shoes designed by St. Jude patients from around the world.  

“What you guys do for St. Jude, all the players talk about how just inspirational and incredible it is when they go to that hospital,” said Zalatoris. “It’s great to see some of the St. Jude kids here today.”

Since its inception, the PGA TOUR has raised more than $3 billion for charity, and the PGA TOUR, FedEx, Memphis and St. Jude have long been a powerful foursome for good. The Memphis tournament has raised more than $60 million for St. Jude, helping to advance the research hospital’s lifesaving mission.

That mission is no more present than on the 18th green, where the final groups of the day were greeted by St. Jude patients serving as honorary pin flag caddies: Maelin-Kate, Riley, Azalea, Mabry, Matthew and Will.

The combo of world-class golfers and a world-class children’s research hospital is often just a lot of fun. Like when this year’s FedEx Purple Eagle honoree, St. Jude patient Riley, started hopping like a bullfrog on the green in the minutes before Zalatoris accepted his trophy nearby.

Here are just a few of our favorite highlights from the week.

Collin Morikawa made golf buddies for life

Two-time PGA Major champion Collin Morikawa kicked off the tournament week by sharing golf pointers with five St. Jude patients: Azalea, Bailey, Cross, Dakota and Reynaldo.

Calling himself “just a big kid, too,” 25-year-old Morikawa spent quality time with Azalea.

“What’s your favorite thing to do?” he asked her.

“Dancing!” she replied, but charmingly refused to show him any moves.

Azalea was referred to St. Jude from Jamaica, after she was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissues. Today, she’s 8 years old, cancer free…and determined.

She overshot a first putt but wanted to keep trying.

“We’re not going to leave until you make it,” Morikawa told her. “I promise you I’m not going to leave.”

He showed her how to shuffle her feet to loosen up, and helped adjust her aim. When she finally landed her shot, he congratulated her “good putt,” and they high fived.

Two golf buddies for life.

A sign Memphis loves St. Jude

On many of the balconies of the homes that line the TPC Southwind golf club, banners were unfurled. Printed by the homeowners were outsized messages of love for the kids of St. Jude.

The banners are a yearly tradition, and the gigantic “I heart St. Jude” sign near 18 has become a symbol of the PGA TOUR event in Memphis.

Many of the homeowners have used the FedEx St. Jude Championship as an occasion for holding St. Jude fundraising parties. Like Alex Gardner, who threw a St. Jude party on Saturday at her home overlooking the 15th fairway.

As the world watched 125 of the best PGA TOUR players take their shot at glory, they also saw a Memphis community connected by heartstrings to the St. Jude cause.

Purple Eagle Riley gets his plane

St. Jude patient Riley celebrated No More Chemo last year after two-and-a-half years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. This year, he began his first week of kindergarten.

The 5-year-old with awesome skater hair loves chasing bullfrogs and running around outdoors.

On Wednesday, a FedEx plane was dedicated in his name.

To receive his honor, Riley strode confidently through the crowd at TPC Southwind, climbed the steps and pulled off the pennant fabric to reveal his name and the St. Jude logo on the FedEx Cessna Caravan fleet plane.

Or as Riley calls it: “my plane.”

Each year since 2012, the Purple Eagle plane has flown to honor St. Jude patients whose parents or grandparents are FedEx team members. Riley’s grandmother, Kim, a FedEx Express dispatcher, nominated him for the 2022 honor.

“All 10 of our Purple Eagle honorees are doing very well,” said Bill West Jr., vice president of supplemental aircraft operations at FedEx Express. “Thank you, St. Jude.”

Many of the Purple Eagle families come back to TPC Southwind each year for the plane dedication, so the event has the feel of a family reunion.

This year, Allie, who was the Purple Eagle honoree in 2014, showed off her engagement ring to the assembled crowd, who clapped and cheered approval.

She’s getting married in December.

St. Jude kids shine at Celebrity Pro-Am

Leading up to the play at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the annual Danny Thomas Celebrity-Am tournament gathered sports, entertainment and music figures for Thursday’s event at Spring Creek Ranch Golf Course in Collierville, Tennessee.

Tyler, 16, caught up with an old friend, actor Patrick Warburton, on the course.

“Mr. Patrick!” Tyler yelled out. They greeted each other warmly, like old friends do.

“You’ve just grown so much,” said Warburton. “You’re going to be taller than me one day.”

The two forged a bond several years ago when Warburton and his wife, Cathy, came to visit St. Jude. Tyler, who was being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the time, was in the ICU, far too sick to meet Warburton in person.

So instead, Warburton recorded a video message for Tyler, saying hello and wishing him well in the voice of Flynn, Tyler’s favorite character from the Skylanders game. (Warburton voices Flynn for the series.)

“Our friendship kind of started from that moment,” said Tyler, who today is cancer free and training for a half marathon. “He never forgets me.”

Jennie Garth spotted St. Jude patient Maelin-Kate, 8, and her mom on the course and jumped from her cart to say hello.

“Would you like me to teach you how to putt?” said Jennie.

Maelin-Kate said yes, and soon she was hooked, hitting putt after putt.

She even began doing a little dance with a sway each time she got the ball into the hole. It caught on big time, becoming a social media viral moment of the tournament.

She met former NBA player and University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway’s foursome, and they all did the “Mae Sway” together.

Meanwhile, Maelin-Kate has a newfound love for golf. On Saturday, she made her mom take her to putt-putt.

More than just a game

The top golfers from the FedEx St. Jude Championship will now advance to the next round of FedEx Cup Playoffs.

The kids who participated in the tournament will advance, too, by starting school, and in Allie’s case, making all the preparations for her wedding in December.

St. Jude looks forward, too, toward its global efforts to cure children everywhere.

When it comes to golf in Memphis, it’s always been more than just a game.

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