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."