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After second leukemia bout, Lyle ready for return

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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits his tee shot on the second hole during the first round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club on December 5, 2013 in Thousand Oaks, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia – For a man who has endured two bouts with leukemia, countless rounds of chemotherapy and perhaps the most emotional 20 months imaginable, Jarrod Lyle spent Tuesday at the Australian Masters bracing for his next challenge.

Lyle, who was driven from golf in early 2012 when doctors discovered he was beset with leukemia for the second time, is making his competitive return this week at Royal Melbourne, but it wasn’t the iconic sand belt layout that was his greatest concern.

“This week the emotional side will be the hardest ... I’m crying now,” Lyle said.

Lyle overcame leukemia as a teenager in 1999 and was entering his fifth season on the PGA Tour in 2012 when an infection on his arm sent him home to Australia to see his doctors. Four days later he began chemotherapy treatments again, but not until he was able to hold his daughter, Lusi, who was born on March 11.

The 32-year-old endured multiple chemotherapy treatments and underwent a bone marrow transplant before doctors declared him cancer free in June. Two months ago doctors cleared him to start playing golf again and he picked Royal Melbourne, which is about two hours from where he grew up, to begin his comeback.

“It’s been 20 of the hardest months I’ve been through, but now it’s like I never left,” Lyle said. “The hardest part is going back out and seeing everyone. I couldn’t have picked a better spot to start my comeback.”

Lyle lost about 35 pounds during his treatment and some players on Tuesday even joked, “where’s the rest of you?” Although he admits his game is rusty, he figures he’s playing at about 70 percent of where he was before his second bout with leukemia, his goal this week was to make the cut.

“He’s hitting it pretty good, but to be honest Tour ready is a little ways away,” said Lyle’s swing coach, Sandy Jamieson.

Lyle will have 20 starts on the Tour when he returns on a major medical exemption to earn about $283,000. He is using this week as a litmus test to check the status of his game and his stamina, which has been the most difficult part of his recovery.

“This is it,” said Lyle, who is hitting the ball shorter than he did in 2012 but straighter. “I will put the clubs away for a little bit and figure things out after this.”

But it will be the emotion of the moment more so than his golf game that will be the biggest challenge this week. In 2005 at the Heineken Open Lyle initially made his mark as a professional when he put himself into contention at Royal Melbourne.

He estimated that teeing off on Thursday for Round 1 of the Australian Masters will be similar to his Sunday start in ’05.

“I wanted to hit driver (on Sunday at the Heineken Open) because it is the biggest club and I had the best chance of not missing it,” he said. “Walking to that first tee and trying to tee the ball up will be the hardest.”

Players have flocked to Lyle this week to celebrate his return, so much so he’s had to put extra focus into practice, and the well-wishing continued into a cold and rainy afternoon.

“It was horrible news,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “It’s exciting he is doing really well and that he gets to play his first tournament here.”

Officials have designed a special hat with Lyle’s signature “duck” logo on them that will benefit the Challenge foundation which is dedicated to helping cancer survivors and their families, and he said having so much support this week will likely distract from his competitive focus.

But that’s OK.

“I’m going to dedicate that first tee shot to everyone who has contacted us and supported us,” Lyle said with his voice cracking.

It was just the beginning of what promises to be an emotional week for Lyle, but as he’s proven time and again he’s adapt at overcoming adversity.