A Chilean flag for Joaquin Niemann, a St. Jude connection and a memory made through golf

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Francisco Soto had the Chilean flag around his neck in the misting rain, toting it from hole-to-hole at TPC Southwind wherever Joaquin Niemann went, hoping his favorite golfer might notice him.

“He’s a huge fan,” Franciso Soto, Jr. said trailing from behind, elongating the word “huge” in a way only a son indulging a father’s obsession can. “He never misses the tournaments he plays. He’s always watching.”

The Memphis golf tournament can mean so many different things to different people, no matter how many different names and formats it takes on. It’s never more true than Thursday’s first round when the golfers who go lowest don’t usually hold up, the galleries are at their thinnest and yet they’re often brimming with substance.

Take these two Soto men, and why they were in Memphis at this particular moment tracking Niemann, their countryman and South America’s best golfer these days.

Francisco Soto, front, and his son, Francisco Soto Jr., back, watch their favorite player Joaquin Niemann during the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, at TPC Southwind in Memphis.

Francisco Soto moved here from Santiago, Chile, four months ago with his wife. She’s a nurse practitioner who was recently hired by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Their plan, he said, is to be in Memphis forever. His son has been visiting for the past month, arriving with admittedly bittersweet emotions, getting a feel for where his father now lives.

So the first day of the first FedEx St. Jude Championship was also their last day together before Soto Jr. returned to Santiago for college.

It was a little slice of home.

FedEx St. Jude Championship: PGA Tour Live on ESPN+ | Leaderboard

Soto, 54, hasn’t found work in Memphis yet due to visa issues, but he used to work in marketing and advertising in Chile. He was part of teams that helped organize events on the South American golf tour. This was nonetheless Soto’s first time attending a golf tournament in-person after so many years watching on television.

He was mesmerized.

“You feel the sound. You feel the noise. You feel the birds. You feel the voice of the players,” Soto said. “You’re very near.”

Francisco Soto watches his favorite player Joaquin Niemann during the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, at TPC Southwind in Memphis.

It’s easy to take this for granted when all the headlines are about LIV Golf and lawsuits and the looming battle for golf’s soul. It’s easy to forget that there are people like Soto all over the PGA Tour circuit, people who would never step foot on the grounds at TPC Southwind if not for this tournament.

The sport is accessible to Memphians this week in a way it never is any other week on the calendar. The best in the world are all right there, tipping their cap to acknowledge the cheers for a good shot or groaning after a bad one.

Niemann did more of the latter Thursday, finishing with a 1-over 71 in soggy but scorable conditions. He’s well back on a leaderboard that features plenty of intriguing storylines, from Tony Finau (6 under) going for a win in his third-straight start to Rickie Fowler, the man of many ad campaigns and the last golfer to get into this year’s FedEx Cup playoffs.

Soto will come back for Saturday’s third round if Niemann turns it around and makes the cut.

So he approached the rope line once Niemann missed yet another birdie putt on his final hole, that Chilean flag now draped over his left shoulder. He decided to wear it “for my country, but also for Niemann,” he said, and he had something he wanted Niemann to hear after following him for four hours.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” Soto said to him, “the best day.”

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