MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship is underway at TPC Southwind. The winner of the tournament will cash in, but one of the biggest winners is St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Over the years, Memphis’ PGA tour stop has raised more than $66,000,000 for the hospital.

Those funds make sure families never get a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing, or food so they can focus on helping their child.

A few weeks ago, WREG’s Colin Cody had the privilege of meeting a young man that loves this tournament for a special reason, the same reason the golfers do.

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 Cunningham.

You wouldn’t know by 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,” said Cunningham. “That’s kind of what I’ve learned from the game of golf is you got to stay positive and keep moving forward. Always looking forward to that next shot, that next goal, that next promotion, whatever you’re doing in life.”

After being diagnosed, he began full-on treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he relearned his fine motor skills. As he gained his strength back, he turned golf into his competitive care.

“I wouldn’t be playing golf had I not gone through treatment. It was my physical therapy. And I just, I just loved it,” said Cunningham.

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.

“One thing that all St. Jude patients need is motivation. Anybody that’s going through a tough time really needs to find that,” said Cunningham.

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,” said Cunningham. “They gave me that drive, that smile that enjoyment of being like, Okay, I know I can get there one day.”

Inspired by the help he received as a patient, Dakota started Think Birdies, to help others stay positive and active during treatment.

According to Cunningham, Think Birdies is meant to bring a positive mindset to other people’s lives no matter what challenges they are going through. He says that when you are thinking positively, you are building yourself up, and that is the goal.

He is now a plus three handicap, but when his golf game isn’t to his liking, he keeps a constant reminder with him on the golf course of where he has been, and to help him keep one foot in front of the other.

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“I just wanted to look down and be able to remember where I came from. I’m out on the golf course having a rough day — remember that it can always be worse, and you got to stay positive going through what you’re going through,” said Cunningham.

Dakota Cunningham is not at TPC Southwind just yet, as he competed in the Gator Invitational in Jackson, Miss. this week.