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The Fighter, Part 4: An old disease, a new inspiration

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18 November 1997: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III hold the trophy at the Mastercard PGA Grand Slam of Golf at the Grand Hyatt of Poipu Bay in Kauai, Hawaii.  - 

SHEPPARTON, Australia – As best he could tell, it was a bug bite. Maybe it was a pimple.

Either way, at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Jarrod Lyle has never been prone to bouts of hypochondria and, as is the Australian way, he just got on with it.

Riding high following his best finish on the PGA Tour a few weeks earlier at the Northern Trust Open and poised for the birth of his first child, Lyle finished the 2012 Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico with a 2-under 69 to tie for 37th place.

It would be Lyle’s last round on the Tour.

“I couldn’t straighten my arm,” remembered Lyle, his mind racing back to the seemingly innocent moment.

Lyle returned to Orlando, Fla., his American base since joining the Tour in 2007, and went straight to a local hospital, where doctors diagnosed the “pimple” as an abscess and gave him a prescription for antibiotics.

At the time it seemed like a blessing in disguise. Because the infection made it difficult for Lyle to swing a golf club, he withdrew from the upcoming Honda Classic and flew home to Australia a week early to see his expectant wife and prepare for the birth of Lusi Joy, a daughter who would become his daily inspiration for the difficult months to come.

Lyle had survived a bout with acute myeloid leukemia as a 17-year-old in 1999, an omnipresent reality that necessitated a precautionary trip to his doctor when he arrived home in Shepparton, a cozy country town about 90 minutes northeast of Melbourne.

It was March 7, 2012, when Lyle and his wife, Briony, settled in front of a television to watch a video of their wedding. Lyle was talking with a childhood friend, Graham Makepeace, when fate came calling again.

“We were just talking and laughing and in the background you could hear the tone coming through on his phone. Obviously someone was trying to get ahold of him and he just dismissed it,” Makepeace recalled. “He said, ‘No, it’ll be all right.’ And I said, ‘Look, mate, someone is really trying to get ahold of you.’”

Dr. Paul O’Dwyer, who had originally diagnosed Lyle with leukemia in 1999, tried to call Lyle three times. Finally he tried Briony, who put Lyle on the phone.

O’Dwyer’s words still echo in Lyle’s consciousness: “Jarrod, it’s Paul. Your cancer is back.”

“I put the phone down, looked at (Briony) and said ‘My cancer’s back’ and burst into tears,” Lyle said.

The cosmic rub is that Lyle can’t produce tears, the byproduct of his initial bout with leukemia and endless rounds of chemotherapy, but then the burly Lyle has never been guarded with his emotions.

Having endured, and won, his initial bout with the disease, the threat of a relapse always loomed for Lyle, but after more than a decade of cancer-free living he allowed himself to move beyond the fear. But in the moment it took to answer the phone he was transported back 13 years to a darker time.

“One minute he’s swearing and having a great time, having a laugh with this friend and the next moment . . . the change couldn’t have been any more drastic,” Briony said. “One minute he’s a 30-year-old expectant father and the next minute he was a child again and just looking for someone to help him.”

Within hours Lyle was on his way to Melbourne, a sobering déjà vu moment along the same desolate highway he’d taken during his first bout with cancer. By the time Briony, who was 8 ½ months pregnant, arrived at the hospital the next day doctors were preparing him for his first round of chemotherapy.

Doctors also had some bad news. The baby couldn’t be exposed to the toxins produced by chemotherapy; therefore Jarrod could not be there for Lusi’s birth. Nor could he hold her.

For Briony, that was not acceptable.

During Lyle’s first bout with leukemia it was golf that drove him through the debilitating treatments and endless tests. His dream to someday play the PGA Tour was there at every checkup and he continued to compete through the worst of his recovery. If he were going to survive the second time, he needed something more.

“My focus immediately was on getting Jarrod to the birth because I couldn’t control anything that happened after that, but I knew he wanted to be there and he needed to be there,” Briony recalled. “He needed to see something for him to hold on to. To know what he was fighting for.”

Briony persuaded her pediatrician to induce labor on March 11 so Lyle could attend the birth, but his doctors balked, insisting that he start chemotherapy treatments immediately.

After dozens of phone calls, Briony found a doctor who would delay Lyle’s treatments – renowned hematologist Jeff Szer at Royal Melbourne Hospital – and four days later, just past 11 p.m. on March 11 in Shepparton, Lyle was holding Lusi.

For just over 12 hours he held her surrounded by family and friends.

“Not one of them got to hold her,” Lyle smiled. “Whether that was selfish or not I couldn’t care less because I just didn’t think that I would ever hold her again, so the whole time not one of them asked. I just sat in the chair and held her.”

At noon on March 12 Lyle climbed back into his car to make the silent drive to Melbourne and begin a fight he had no intention of losing.

A pragmatist at heart, Lyle knew what was to come and the diminishing odds associated with a relapse. He knew there was a chance that Lusi would grow up without a father, but he was at peace with that.

“I just didn’t care about me,” he said. “For me being able to be there and see her born and see her as a spitting image of me, all of a sudden that fear of death that came over me disappeared.”

His PGA Tour dreams had pulled him through the first time, but now he had something much more precious to fight for.

“I didn’t want it to happen,” he allowed through a wash of emotion when asked if he ever considered his own mortality. “That’s where the old fighting instinct of Jarrod Lyle came out and tried everything that I could to make sure that didn’t happen.”

The fighter who had forged his way from cancer survivor to PGA Tour player was back, paired this time with the singular focus of fatherhood.