MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Dakota Cunningham is your average everyday 17-year-old who spends most of his days learning to improve his golf game.
” The game of golf. Well, there’s ups and downs. Just like in life,” said Dakota with a smirk on his face.
You wouldn’t know with the smile that he keeps, but back in 2017 he began a three-year battle with acute lymphoma classic leukemia and has been in remission since 2020.
” Every time you go through a tough time, you have to learn how to fight through it and take what you can from it and continue to be positive. That’s kind of that’s what I’ve learned from the game of golf, you got to stay positive and keep moving forward. You have to always look forward to that next shot, that next goal, that next promotion, whatever you’re doing in life,” said Dakota.
After being diagnosed, he began treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he had to relearn how to walk and his fine motor skills. As he gained his strength back, he turned golf into his competitive cure.
” I wouldn’t be playing golf had I not gone through treatment. It was my physical therapy and I just loved it ever since then”.
In 2019, Dakota put a smile on everyone’s face during the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational, after he made a five-foot putt for $50,000 for St. Jude.
” I’m one of those kids so I relate to every kid that’s out there, and gets to have a smile on their face for a couple of days because, in the midst of the battle that they’re, all fighting it’s one of those small highlights in their lives. One thing that all St. Jude patients need is motivation, and anybody that’s going through a tough time really needs to find that “.
For Dakota, he says those simple interactions with some of the best golfers in the world inspired him to pursue golf full-time.
” I’ve gotten a late start to it compared to a lot of the other kids, which I’ve learned to accept. You got to put the time in and then your rewards will come later. They gave me that drive, that smile that enjoyment of being like, OK, I know I can get there one day”.
Inspired by the help he received as a patient, Dakota started ‘ThinkBirdies.com’, a website to help others stay positive and active during cancer treatment.
” When you’re thinking positively, that’s you’re building yourself up and that’s the whole goal. With ‘Think Birdies’ it’s to bring that positive mindset into other people’s lives no matter what type of challenges they’re going through”.
Dakota now has a +3 handicap, but when his golf game isn’t to his liking, he created a pair of custom-made St. Jude-inspired FootJoy cleats, as a constant reminder of where he’s been and to help him keep one foot in front of the other.
” I just wanted to look down and be able to remember, where I came from every time I look down. So, when I’m out on the golf course having a rough day. I can remember where I came from. Remember that it can always be worse and to stay positive”.