Australian Jarrod Lyle makes his way back to the PGA Tour after battling leukemia
It was nothing. A cold that wouldn't quit. The occasional nose bleed. Then one day on his way to school, 17- year-old Jarrod Lyle felt dizzy and nearly passed out. He saw a doctor and forgot all about it until Thursday, May 13, 1999, when he really forgot it. Jarrod got a call to say he was being promoted from the junior to senior competition team at his golf club in Melbourne, Australia. His father, John, was champion of the valley, and Jarrod, with the same towering, brawny build, could play some, too. Jarrod was pumped.
Then, about an hour later, the phone rang again. The voice on the other end was different, grimmer, not nearly so enthusiastic.
"You'd better come down here."
"I can't — I've got to play golf on Sunday," Jarrod said.
"I don't think you'll be doing that."
There was something unusual about Jarrod's tests. The family was told to get to Royal Children's Hospital (RCH), more than 100 miles away, as soon as possible.
The story has a happy ending, but you knew that. What's unique about Lyle's saga is that he wouldn't have reached the PGA Tour in 2009 without the terrible beginning. May 13, 1999 marked the start not only of his recovery ("If I had gone to the hospital a week later, I wouldn't be here today"), but of his evolution as a golfer. Lyle is the rare pro who found his game not so much in the dirt as in an adjustable bed.
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) was the diagnosis, and if you should ever get a vote, that's the last type of leukemia to choose. AML has a survival rate of around 35 percent, and while doctors would not disclose Jarrod's odds, his parents later learned that they were around 20 percent.
"It turned out to be everybody's worst fear," Lyle says between bites of lunch at a Nationwide Tour event in Boise, Idaho. He is 6' 2", 245 — built more for bucking hay or wrestling calves than playing golf. Apple cheeks on alabaster skin give him the look of a man who works outdoors. It's easy to forget that a decade ago he was by his own estimation "threequarters dead."
How did he survive? "It's one of life's mysteries, I suppose," he says. "I had a pretty positive attitude when I was in there, and whether that did it, whether it was the medicine, whether they caught it in time, we'll never know."
When news of his illness spread, Sheppartonians — residents of the Lyles' hometown of Shepparton, a dairy town in Victoria — went into full casserole mode for the family. But the foods that Lyle once enjoyed — fish fingers and meat pies among them — he threw up. He lost 75 pounds, and his hair.
He also survived life-threatening hemorrhages and bad TV. When he felt well enough, he fiddled with his PlayStation, a gift from his former co-workers at McDonald's. He practiced putting in his room and gave his doctor lessons to remind himself what lay beyond his intubated exile from the game.
Lyle's mother, Sally-Anne, had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — "1999 was a bad year," Lyle says — but every morning she would come to his bedside. She kept a diary, and each page begins the same way:
"Jarrod, did you get a good night's rest?"
"We are going to beat this."
"Yes we are, mum."
Lyle says he wouldn't trade his illness for anything, and people look at him funny when he says that. But the way he figures it, the leukemia transformed him. "Man, look, I was never a good junior at all," he says. "I always struggled. I think when I was 17 I was still probably a 5 or 6 handicap. I think going through what I went through made me realize that's really what I want to do. I didn't want to be stuck in an office, inside. I think it made me work harder when I got out."
So did a few friends in high places. Australia's golf community is vast, permeating the PGA and Nationwide Tours, but tight. One day Lyle received a letter from Rod Leembruggen, director of the Heineken Classic, a tournament co-sanctioned by the Australasian and European Tours. A schoolmate of Jarrod's father, Leembruggen had read about his illness in the newspaper.
"I'm really sorry to hear about your leukemia," he wrote. "Keep your chin up and keep smiling and keep at it. And you never know, one day you might be playing the Heineken Classic."
Another day Robert Allenby showed up, at the request of Dave Rogers, CEO of the Challenge cancer-support network. Lyle had met Allenby once before. At 12 or 13, the kid had scored an autograph when he held a "Quiet" sign at the Victorian Open. But this meeting at RCH was tougher. Deep into his treatment, Lyle was tethered to a noisy machine harvesting his body's stem cells, a hellacious four-hour ordeal. He did not want to see anyone. "Trust me," someone said. "You do."
"He had about 500 tubes poking out of his body for the chemo and everything getting pumped into him," Allenby recalls. "I've never seen eyes as big as his when I walked in."
Lyle and Allenby clicked, and remain close. When Lyle shot a final-round 63 to win the second Nationwide event of 2008, the Mexico Open, by five strokes, Allenby sent his protege a text message: Congratulations. It's about time. Now get back out here where you belong.
When your body is in such a frail state that someone else's sneeze could kill you, it stands to reason that one really good visit can keep you going.
But Lyle got more than one. When he was well enough for a day trip, Rogers took him to play nine holes at the ultraexclusive Capital Golf Club, which gets almost no play. Challenge brings kids to Capital to be pampered courtesy of club owner Lloyd Williams, one of the richest men in Australia.
"Jarrod had been talking all the way there about Greg Norman being one of his favorite golfers," Rogers says. "It's freaky, but when we got there, totally by chance, this helicopter was landing on the golf course, and there he was. So we have a photo with Jarrod when he was bald shaking hands with Greg Norman. He wished Jarrod the best and had a bit of a hit with us."
Lyle's luck was starting to turn, and in early 2000 he left the hospital for good. Still not well enough to walk 18 holes, he could at least start practicing. Through Allenby, he began to work with acclaimed junior instructor Sandy Jamieson. Lyle was strong enough to walk 18 holes by the end of 2000, and at 19, older than most new students, he began to train at the Victorian Institute of Sport.
Free to chase his dream, Lyle improved quickly. He qualified for the Australian Open and played a practice round with Allenby. He won the storied Lake Macquarie Amateur in 2003 and again in 2004 before turning pro.
Leembruggen's letter would prove prophetic, because in just Lyle's fifth tournament as a pro, he played the Heineken Classic. It was February 2005, and Shepparton's self-titled "Big Unit," now 23, appeared unmoved. With dad John carrying the bag, he shot 68-66-66 to get into the final group on Sunday with Nick O'Hern and Craig Parry. These were some of the men he'd grown up watching on TV, and yet he was right there with them at famed Royal Melbourne.
"Pressure doesn't really bother me that much, having been through what I've been through," Lyle says. "Pressure is nothing anymore."
A record 33,000 fans turned out to cheer for Lyle, and the Australian press was agog. Lyle took the lead through 14 holes, but that's when it all became too much. The poignant Jarrod Lyle Story managed to overwhelm the last holdout in Australia: Lyle. After a bogey at 15, he needed a par at 18 to get in a playoff, but he hooked his drive and made another bogey, finishing a shot back. He and John began to cry, as did Leembruggen — this had been the dream back when the pills didn't work, the food wouldn't stay down and the hospital felt like a coffin. This was the fantasy that had kept Lyle alive.
The longer the cancer stays in remission, the less likely it will return. For peace of mind, Lyle had a physical in December 2007, and blood tests were normal. He is well again, and free to enjoy the normal life of a 27-year-old. He lives for the rare miniature golf outing with friends in Orlando, his U.S. base.
More often, though, Lyle finds himself talking about leukemia and otherwise building awareness about the disease. He's done three golf clinics in Shepparton for Challenge, and raised $70,000. But he can't bring himself to visit RCH. When he went back two years ago, the sight of a sick child hit Lyle so hard he left the building in tears. "Seeing kids that quite possibly will never get out of that room was too much for me," he says.
His return to the PGA Tour may be easier. In 2007, his rookie year, he missed six straight cuts from April to July, and lost his card after finishing 164th on the money list. But Lyle thinks he knows what he did wrong: too much practice. "I'd rather spend half an hour on the range working on the right things than spend two hours just to be there," he says. "I saw guys doing that who were making a successful living and thought I had to do that."
He clearly has game. Lyle qualified for last summer's U.S. Open (T48) and the next week won the Knoxville Open, with John and Sally-Anne in attendance. (She is well enough to walk but tires easily.) Lyle's second win of 2008 locked up his return to the PGA Tour. "He's a great ballstriker, he's got a great short game and he's a great putter," Allenby says. "He's got everything he needs."
The hard part is over. It's time for Lyle to finally make good on that promotion.