The Fighter, Part 1: Short walk, long journey

By Rex HoggardFebruary 18, 2014, 12:00 pm

SHEPPARTON, Australia – For a man who has made more than his share of emotional walks in an eventful life, the 150 odd yards from the makeshift practice range to the first tee at Royal Melbourne Golf Club was every bit the seminal stroll.

Jarrod Lyle may have covered more meaningful ground in his 32 years, from his lonely trips down endless hospital corridors to his dogged quest to play the PGA Tour, but in terms of emotional capital the turf leading to Royal Melbourne’s opening hole was wrought with distractions.

November’s Australian Masters was Lyle’s sentimental return to competitive golf following his second bought with leukemia. The inner competitor didn’t stand a chance as he passed through a frenzied crowd – many of whom were donned in Lyle’s signature bright yellow shirts – on his way to another emotional milestone.

Amid the afternoon gloom and anticipation, Geoff Ogilvy and Brendon de Jonge, his playing partners for the first two rounds, avoided eye contact with Lyle. They didn’t want to succumb to the enormity of the moment as Lyle nervously paced around the tee box.

As if on cue, Lusi Joy, Lyle’s 1 ½ year old daughter who had been his solace and a singular source of inspiration over the previous 18 months, broke the silence with an angelic “Daddy.”

Lusi had been there through the darkest of days. She was there after each round of chemotherapy when the threat of radiation poisoning robbed Lyle of the one thing he wanted most in the world – to hold his daughter. She was there the day Lyle’s doctor called to tell him he was cancer free, and rode shotgun in a golf cart to his home course when Lyle finally allowed himself to imagine playing golf again.

It was only apropos that she would be in the front row when Lyle returned to competition.

“I was just standing there and heard Lusi call out and figured I have to find her and give her one last cuddle,” Lyle said following a first-round 72 that surprised everyone, even Lyle. “It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of to have my daughter at a golf tournament. I don’t know how I did it with tears in my eyes. I don’t really care where the tee shot went, it was in the rough, but I don’t care.”

There was a time, not that long ago, when Lyle didn’t really care if he ever played competitive golf again, and that was fine.

In March 2012 Lyle was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia for the second time. He'd beaten the disease and the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy as a teenager and went on to defy the odds when he earned his PGA Tour card in 2007.

It’s never easy to learn that your own body has turned on you, which is essentially how leukemia kills, but for Lyle the news took a particularly gut-wrenching toll. Lyle and his wife Briony were expecting the couple’s first child, Lusi, within days of the diagnosis and, despite concerns from some on his medical team, he delayed the start of treatments so he could be there for the birth.

Throughout it all, Lyle’s focus remained on Lusi, not golf.

“I felt early on that golf wasn’t that important to him,” said Jeff Szer, Lyle’s hematologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital. “But now it’s different. It’s difficult to take golf out of the man.”

The fire to play again returned but at a particularly languid pace.

On June 8, 2012, Lyle received a bone-marrow transplant that swept his body clean of leukemia and, as his health and stamina improved, so did his outlook on golf until his interest was truly piqued by a DVD that arrived from America.

Tripp Isenhour, Golf Channel analyst and longtime friend of Lyle’s dating back to the duo’s days on the Web.com Tour, asked more than 80 Tour players, equipment representatives and caddies to send messages to Lyle, including Phil Mickelson and two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton.

“It lasted 42 minutes and I cried for 42 minutes,” Lyle said of the DVD.

In February 2013, nearly a year after being diagnosed the second time, Lyle loaded Lusi into a golf cart for the short drive to his home course in Torquay, Australia. He hit two drives off the first tee, both off the neck of the club and both into the fairway, had to collect Lusi after she’d tumbled into a greenside bunker and returned home after nine holes with a surprisingly upbeat assessment.

“He came through the door and said ‘Pack your bags, we’re going to America,’ ” laughed Briony. “He was that sure that his form was back from nine holes.”

A few rounds later he was back on the same roller coaster every professional rides. “All it took was for him to play a second round and walk through the door and say, ‘It’s alright, unpack your bags,’ ” Briony said.

With time, and a healthy amount of patience, Lyle’s good rounds started to outnumber the bad. His mind drifted to the Australian Masters at Royal Melbourne, where he’d played much of his amateur golf and the site of his professional breakthrough when he tied for third place at the 2005 Heineken Open.

In the days prior to the Australian Masters it wasn’t his game, or the emotional wave that awaited him on the first tee, that worried Lyle so much as his lack of stamina.

Lyle had walked 18 holes for four consecutive days just twice before his return and that was back home in Torquay where he was free of the emotional drain that was to come.

“It was like I’d run a marathon after I’d walk 18 holes,” Lyle said. “I’d get home and my legs would be really heavy and during the night you’d cramp up. I felt like I’d just done 10 rounds with (Mike) Tyson.”

But his body and game would deliver at Royal Melbourne; his second-round 71 left him tied for 36th after 36 holes. The enormity of the moment caught up with him on Sunday when he struggled to a closing 79 to tie for 57th. But if the results were not exactly what he expected, the significance of the moment was not clouded by the outcome.

“There were about 15 times today that all I could hear out of the crowd was Lusi going, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ ” Lyle said. “It was great to have her here and everybody else walking around and just relish the opportunity.”

The two-time cancer survivor has endured a lifetime of difficult walks, but none as emotional as his first steps back to professional golf.

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Spieth, McIlroy to support Major Champions Invitational

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:25 pm

Nick Faldo announced Tuesday the creation of the Major Champions Invitational.

The event, scheduled for March 12-14, is an extension of the Faldo Series and will feature both male and female junior players at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla.

Jordan Spieth, Rory Mcllroy, Annika Sorenstam, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jerry Pate and John Daly have already committed to supporting the event, which is aimed at mentoring and inspiring the next generation of players.  

“I’m incredibly excited about hosting the Major Champions Invitational, and about the players who have committed to support the event,” Faldo said. “This event will allow major champions to give something back to the game that has given them so much, and hopefully, in time, it will become one of the most elite junior golf events in the world.”

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Rosaforte: Woods plays with Obama, gets rave reviews

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:15 pm

Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reports on Tiger Woods’ recent round at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., alongside President Barack Obama.

Check out the video, as Rosaforte says Woods received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon. 

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.



FALLING

Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”


Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)


Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”