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.