NAPA, Calif. – The PGA Tour leader in inspiration can’t escape the cold, hard numbers. It doesn’t seem fair. The greetings are a little warmer, and the embraces are a little longer, and the cheers are a little lustier, but once he gets back inside the ropes Jarrod Lyle, the two-time cancer survivor, is judged just like every other player – by the cold, hard numbers on his scorecard.
And after nearly five months away, Lyle’s numbers weren’t good enough this week at the Frys.com Open. He shot 69-77, a 2-over 146 total that left him well below the cut line. He now has nine more PGA Tour starts to earn $217,680, or else he’s out of a job.
“It’s still, unfortunately, a work in progress,” he said Friday. “I don’t know if there was a bit of rust in there or not, but it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow missing the cut.”
That’s now eight missed cuts in nine starts this calendar year; the only time he played the weekend, at Colonial, he missed the secondary cut and earned $12,350.
His game in shambles, Lyle decided in late May to sit out the rest of the Tour season. At that point, he wasn’t sure if he ever would return.
“A lot of doubt,” he said, “but it was nice just to get away from it. It was giving me gray hairs. It was frustrating me, and I just needed to get away from it and not spend every minute thinking about golf.”
His remarkable comeback put on hold, it gave Lyle and his family time to reflect.
At 17, he was stricken with acute myeloid leukemia and confined to a children’s hospital in Melbourne. Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of surviving.
It was there that he met one of Australia’s sporting heroes, Robert Allenby, for the first time. Lyle dreamed of becoming a professional golfer, and Allenby offered him hope. They kept in touch for the next few years, and Allenby rode shotgun for many of Lyle’s career milestones, playing a practice round with him before Lyle qualified for the Tour, before he qualified for his first U.S. Open, before he won the Australian Open.
“I don’t think people really realize what he’s gone through,” Allenby said Friday.
In 2012, entering his fifth year on Tour, Lyle learned that the leukemia had returned. The news arrived the same week that his wife, Briony, gave birth to the couple’s first child. Lyle endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. He was declared cancer-free in June 2013 and made an emotional return to golf later that year at the Australian Masters.
“There’s two miracles in his life – having a child and also being alive,” Allenby said. “That’s why golf, to him, is not the be-all and end-all. It’s definitely his passion, so that’s why he wants to play and pursuit it with all of us.”
Lyle didn’t play again in the States until July 2014, when he tied for 11th in a Web.com Tour event, but he has fallen on hard times since. He ended the year with three consecutive missed cuts on that circuit, and now has cashed a check in only seven of 10 starts this season on the big tour.
So he stepped away. Lyle worked on a few projects at home. He spent time with his wife and young daughter. He watched his favorite Australian rules football team. He paid closer attention to his fitness, shedding 20 pounds with a more rigorous workout schedule and diet.
Allenby checked in with frequent text messages, just like he has for the past two decades.
“When he took that leave,” Allenby said, “I was like, OK, maybe that’s a good thing. He knows where he is mentally and physically. If he was feeling good, he would have stayed, I’m sure, but obviously he wasn’t feeling great and his health was a bit of a concern for him.”
It’s easy to second-guess now. Maybe Lyle rushed his return at the start of the year. Maybe the week-in, week-out toil of a touring pro was too much, too soon for his body, for his mind.
“I thought I was ready,” he said, “but I could have sat back for another 12 months and thought I was ready, too. The more I sat at home, the less I’d want to come over.”
What brought Lyle back to the game was his competitiveness. That part has never waned. He started playing three or four times a week at his local club, but he couldn’t get a true read on his game while playing with 20-handicappers.
So Lyle returned here this week at the Frys, eager and ready for another, likely final, try.
“I’ve said all along that I want to give it one last chance,” he said. “I’ve been given one last chance to play golf. If I unfortunately lose my status and lose my job, then I can’t sit back in years to come and say that I didn’t try hard enough.
“I’m giving it everything I’ve got to stay out here, but I guess in the long run, at the end of those 20 events I’ve played, if I miss every cut or I haven’t made enough money, then reality might set in and maybe I’m not good enough anymore. It’s always in the back of your mind that maybe I’m not good enough.”
And then Thursday happened.
The opening-hole birdie. The hole-out for eagle on the 16th hole. The 3-under 69 that put him in a tie for 29th, in line for a much-needed paycheck.
“It still gives you that glimmer of hope that there’s still some game left in the body,” he said. His late-afternoon play was the highlight of another otherwise sleepy opener at Silverado. Problem was, he had a tee time some 13 hours later, the second group off at 7:30 a.m. local – and that’s a big ask for a player with already low energy levels.
Sure enough, he looked like a different player Friday. He opened with a bogey. He dropped two other shots. He made a triple on the par-4 third (his 12th of the day), when his tee shot kicked out of bounds after an unlucky bounce off a tree.
Playing in the group ahead, Allenby occasionally turned around and watched his mate’s progress.
“A few lazy shots,” he said, “and it could just be fatigue. And that can happen. He probably put a lot coming into this tournament. He had a good round yesterday; he’s pretty excited. And then to try and come out early this morning, it’s very difficult for anyone, really, but even more so for him.”
To his credit, Lyle didn’t blame his second-round 77 on fatigue: “Just one of those days things didn’t go my way,” he said.
Instead, he lamented a poor setup with his wedges that seemingly always left him stuck between 100 and 130 yards, unable to create enough spin on three-quarter shots into Silverado’s rock-hard greens.
“He needs to get his swagger back,” said Lyle’s caddie, Darren Woolard. “He’s been out of the mix. He needs to start believing that he belongs. He showed me a lot today.”
But the cold, hard numbers show that the clock is ticking on his comeback. Nine events remain, and the goal remains the same: $217,680. He hopes to Monday-qualify for next week’s stop in Vegas. If he misses out, his next (and only) other Tour start the rest of the year will come in the opposite-field event in Mississippi.
Why not tee it up at Mayakoba, he was asked, because he has a stellar record there, with three top-10s in his last four tries?
“It’s bad juju down there,” he said, a sad reminder that his past is never too far behind.
The Mexico event is where he found out that the cancer had returned, in 2012.
“I work in weird ways,” he said, “and I don’t want to go to a place where I’ve got nothing but bad memories.”
Who knows if this will work out, if the numbers will turn in his favor, if this is his last attempt. He has beaten long odds before.
“I still want to do it – it’s always been my dream,” he said. “I guess at some point if it’s not working out the way I want it to, I think the decision for me would be pretty easy to walk away and be happy. But there’s always that glimmer of hope that I keep in my back pocket everywhere I go, like maybe next week will be the week.”