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Opinion: As LIV Golf hovers, PGA Tour and FedEx St. Jude Championship have something in common

MEMPHIS — Leave it to the father of a cancer survivor to put the melodrama consuming professional golf into perspective.

You remember Dakota Cunningham, right?

He was the Olive Branch kid who had Jim Nantz eating out of the palm of his hand on the CBS broadcast when the PGA Tour came to Memphis two years ago. Well, Dakota is 16 years old. He’s playing on the junior golf circuit. The UT-Martin golf coach (NAME)came out to a tournament not that long ago to watch him play.

College golf appears to be in his future, a remarkable feat considering he only got passionate about the sport when he couldn’t play soccer anymore upon being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2017.

So Steve Cunningham was standing there on the edge of the putting green at the new Overton Park 9 on Monday afternoon, watching his son and four other St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patients get pointers from PGA Tour star Collin Morikawa, and reflecting on how important this all had been.

Dakota’s connection with St. Jude and the tournament now known as the FedEx St. Jude Championship has given him access to elite golfers like Morikawa and Justin Thomas and – here’s where Steve paused a beat – Bryson DeChambeau.

DeChambeau, of course, is one of the marquee defectors to the LIV Golf series, the Saudi-funded alternative that the PGA Tour is treating as an existential threat. It’s to the point that Steve Cunningham wasn’t even sure if he could utter this next part out loud.

“I know his name is probably a bad word right now, but when Dakota reaches out to Bryson on Instagram, he responds,” Steve explained, “and he doesn’t have to do that.”

As much as the PGA Tour wants this to be good vs. evil, it was never that straightforward. This is mostly rich guys turning their back on other rich guys in the pursuit of getting even more rich. But chasing the almighty dollar can’t take away what Phil Mickelson, or Dustin Johnson, or Brooks Koepka, or even DeChambeau, have done for St. Jude and this tournament over the years.

All it does is take them away from Memphis. All it does is make you wonder if the PGA Tour knows what it’s doing. All it does is make you worry.

The Tour is returning to Memphis for the 65th year in a row in a more vulnerable position than it ever has been before. It badly miscalculated the viability of LIV Golf. Worst of all, it doesn’t seem willing to admit that yet.

This controversy could very well reach a head at TPC Southwind this week. There are three golfers – three LIV defectors – requesting a temporary injunction in order to play in the FedEx St. Jude Championship. A California federal court is set to hear the case Tuesday afternoon.

“I definitely was surprised to see some guys actually suing us,” said Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 golfer. “It’s a topic of discussion, for sure.”

Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford could be out on the course for a practice round Wednesday, and the implications of their presence is already all anyone can talk about heading into this event. The Tour is arguing these golfers can’t break membership rules and then demand their way back in, can’t have their cake and eat it too.

The real problem, though, is that there probably isn’t enough cake. The sport can’t actually go on like it has the past few months for the long haul.

Contrary to what the golf establishment will have you believe, it’s in everyone’s best interest if the PGA Tour and LIV work out an arrangement that allows both to co-exist. Frankly, it’s in the best interest of Memphis. This is a PGA Tour town, given its history here and the amount of money FedEx has invested in it.

But LIV isn’t going away so long as the Saudis pour money into it, which means this isn’t about winning for the Tour as much as it’s about survival.

See, St. Jude and the PGA Tour have something else in common this week, something beyond this event.

They can’t lose their fight.

St. Jude’s mission is to one day eradicate pediatric cancer, to come up with a cure so that every child is like the five former patients who played a little golf with Morikawa on Monday. But you can’t thrive if you’re not alive, if you don’t survive, if there aren’t people who give that life meaning.

People like Dakota and DeChambeau.

As everyone else followed Morikawa to another green Monday, Dakota stayed back on his own practicing flop shots and chips away from the cameras. He swung over and over again, his future indelibly altered by a sport, a tournament, a hospital and, yes, a controversial golfer his father wasn’t sure he should mention.

The sooner the PGA Tour embraces that perspective, the better.

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