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.