After the chemotherapy treatments, after the radiation session, after the bone-marrow transplant and after being told his cancer was in remission again, Jarrod Lyle’s hair started to grow back. Only this time instead of straight and dark, it was curly and gray.
“It looked like I had had a bloody perm or something,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Australia.
Lyle, who turns 32 on Aug. 21, can chuckle now, especially after his locks grew back to normal after a haircut. In March 2012, Lyle was diagnosed with a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that develops in the bone marrow, and faced an uncertain future. The fifth-year Tour pro learned of his relapse mere days before his first child was to be born. Two forces warred within him: grief and a desire to cry out that he had beaten this ugly disease before and would do so again. Still, the magnitude of the situation did not escape him: “I was in a fight for my life,” he said.
Lyle’s latest episode with cancer began when he detected something resembling a bug bite on his left arm while playing in the Mayakoba Classic in late February 2012.
“It was like a pimple that turned into a big abscess,” he said.
When his flight arrived home in Orlando, Fla., he drove straight to the hospital. Following doctor’s orders, he withdrew from the Honda Classic and flew home to Australia a week early for the expected birth of his daughter. Not long after his arrival, he consulted a doctor after breaking into a rash from the antibiotics prescribed for his arm. That’s when a routine blood test revealed his cancer had returned. His initial reaction? “I guess shock more than anything,” Lyle said.
Lyle’s world came crashing down just when it never seemed better. He had recorded a career-best fourth-place finish at the Northern Trust Open a few weeks earlier. His first child was on the way. His wife, Briony, was induced so that he could cherish holding his baby girl before beginning his treatment in Melbourne. On March 10, the Lyles welcomed daughter Lusi Joy into this world.
The treatment protocols had changed a great deal since 1999, when Lyle was a 17-year-old, confined to a hospital bed at Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne for nine months and wondering whether he would ever regain his health and fulfill his dream to play on the PGA Tour. It took a full year after he beat leukemia the first time before he had the energy to walk a golf course again, but by 2004 he was a member of the PGA Tour of Australasia. Lyle has never forgotten the parting words of his doctor after another cancer-free blood test in late 2006: “I never want to see you again,” he said.
“After five years, they tell you that you’re pretty safe,” Lyle told reporters in 2008, a year after he made the PGA Tour. “But it’s something you always think about. If I get a cold, I’m always thinking the worst. . . . I guess you never stop wondering, but you also learn that you have to enjoy every minute of your life.”
Here was Lyle, who embraced a simple philosophy that a bad day on a golf course is better than a good day in a hospital, experiencing his worst fear. He was flat on his back in a hospital bed again, with tubes everywhere. This time he endured fewer doses of chemotherapy, but they packed a more powerful punch. The big advancement? Better anti-nausea drugs. “I didn’t throw up once,” he said.
Lyle didn’t want to know his chances for survival, but he knew they weren’t good. “If they told me I had a 20 percent chance of living, I’d think, ‘Is it even worth fighting?’ ” he said. “As long as I didn’t know, I was going to fight like hell no matter what to beat it again.”
All these months later, Lyle’s voice still chokes up when he discusses the encouragement he received from his fellow players, tour officials, and people who learned his story and were compelled to contact him. Shortly after his diagnosis, at the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational, players organized a “get well” video and many started (and continue) to wear Leuk the Duck pins during his recovery. Lyle was touched by these gestures at a time when his bottomless supply of determination was being tested.
“They hit me as hard as they could to get me through that first round of chemo and kill everything in my system – both good and bad,” he said.
Lyle suffered a setback when the first round of chemo failed to achieve the necessary results. That meant the second round of chemo would have to be just as strong, and the likelihood of going into remission was only 50/50.
“That was the only time they gave me a number,” he said.
His spirits lifted in late May when Round 2 was deemed a success.
“Let’s get this done,” Lyle said after being told of his remission, “and let’s start getting better.”
To get better, however, first he had to withstand five straight days of the strongest levels of chemotherapy treatment he received. That was followed by a two-hour radiation session.
“It zaps so much out of you,” he said.
One day later, on June 8, 2012, once doctors had determined that he was cancer-free, he had the bone-marrow transplant. Afterwards, he lived in Melbourne so he could be near the hospital, and went there three times a week for transfusions and checkups during the first three months.
Lyle is thankful for the life he can now lead. He has missed golf – “It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said – but raising his daughter has occupied his mind, given him reason to smile and a new purpose.
“Before all this,” he said, “if I didn’t play golf it was like, shoot, I wasted a day.”
He sums up Lusi in four words: “a fiery little redhead.” Lyle blamed himself for spoiling her rotten, and said he wouldn’t trade being around to see her formative years. She’s 17 months old and growing comfortably into her car seat. Recently, the family of three was on the rode when Lyle spun around and said to his wife, “Have a look; she’s like a little human now.”
Lyle’s daughter often accompanies him on his trips to the golf course, carrying her tiny Scotty Cameron putter around like a prized possession. From March 2012 until this January, Lyle didn’t touch a club. He was sitting on the porch on a beautiful day when the mood struck him. So he fetched his clubs, picked up his daughter, drove to the course, jumped in a golf cart and played nine holes.
“I went through my round and realized I shot even par,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s not too bad.’ ”
The swing, he says, feels good, and for further proof he adds that he hasn’t shot worse than 4 over par for 18 holes. He has lost approximately 35 pounds and isn’t hitting the ball quite as far, but his stamina is returning. He recently played three days of golf in a row, and has targeted the Australian Masters in November as his competitive debut.
That event, the last he played in his native land, will mark the start of his comeback trail. The reality that he has picked a date that isn’t too far off doesn’t seem to faze him. Royal Melbourne, the host course, is filled with pleasant memories of his finishing joint third at the 2005 Heineken Classic, and not far from where he grew up in Shepparton, Victoria. “I’ll have the home crowd there,” he said.
Can he regain the wave of momentum he was riding before being sidelined? “I’d like to think I could,” he said.
His golf future is filled with unknowns, but that’s OK, too. The Australian Masters will serve as a barometer of sorts to figure out how far he still has to go, with an eye on making a return to the PGA Tour. When he’s ready, Lyle can use a major medical extension to play the Tour. He stressed that he will return with a new sense of purpose. Amazed at the outpouring of support, Lyle has concluded there’s only one way he can possibly thank all of his supporters: to hit his first drive back on the Tour. However long that may take, all of golf will be rooting for him to split the fairway.