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 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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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray

On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard

On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts, Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

Regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”