On this heartbreaking night when we lost Jarrod Lyle, I can’t help but think of when I first met him.
It was June 2011, and I’d flown to Memphis, Tenn., to write a magazine cover story on him. He was 29 at the time, cancer-free, and he’d agreed to visit the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for the first time.
It scared the hell out of him.
When Jarrod was 17, he underwent treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. For nine months he was confined to a hospital bed in Melbourne, just like the ones they had at St. Jude. It very well could have been his final resting place; his doctors gave him only a 20-percent chance of surviving.
The days largely blurred together, but he vividly recalled talking at night with some of the new friends he’d made in his wing. Then he’d wake up the next morning and some of them would be gone, with no warning, the horrible disease claiming more victims far too young.
The memories haunted him, as he wondered why he was spared and some of his mates were not.
“It’s left a black hole in me,” he said then.
His experience at the Royal Children’s Hospital was so traumatic that he returned only for his annual checkups. On his last visit, the doctor told him: “I never want to see you again.” And for a decade or so, it appeared as though Lyle might never have to.
He blossomed into the golfer he always hoped he could be, winning twice on the Web.com circuit and playing his way onto the PGA Tour. He was a hero in Australia, a beacon of hope for those battling the disease, an inspiration to anyone who spent even a few minutes around him. Happy and humble and hilarious, he continued to defy the odds. Not only was he alive, and thriving, but in 2012, he and his beautiful wife, Briony, were expecting their first child. It was a miracle.
But for cancer survivors like Lyle, bad news is always just one blood test away. While in Mexico for the Mayakoba event, he received the second of three sucker-punches: the leukemia was back. Knowing the physical and emotional torture he was about to endure, he decided to delay chemotherapy, so he could hold his newborn baby, Lusi, for a day.
Once again, he pulled through, and he bravely returned to competition, playing 18 Tour events on a weakened body in 2015 and ’16. In the first tournament of his last season, he played in the group behind Robert Allenby. The coincidence wasn’t lost on either of them. Years earlier, Allenby had popped into Lyle’s hospital room in Melbourne and invited him to play golf whenever he was released. They teed it up two weeks later and became lifelong friends. Whenever Lyle was down on his game, or his luck, Allenby reminded him: “Just remember what you’ve been through. If you can fight through that, you can do anything you possibly want in life.”
Lyle had hoped to instill similar life lessons on the patients at St. Jude that sweltering summer day in 2011, but he never ventured further than the lobby of the hospital. The smell made him nauseas. The walls felt claustrophobic. The thought of seeing another sick kid in bed and wondering whether he was ever going to get out, whether he was going to be able to pursue his dreams, made him want to crawl into a corner and cry.
He apologized profusely to the hospital PR staffer, but, no, he couldn’t tour the facility. It was still too raw, too painful, too real.
Instead, with his eyes welling, he hoped that I’d be able to share his remarkable story for him.
“You just can’t give up,” he started. “If I didn’t fight, if I didn’t think about golf, if I didn’t fight my butt off, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be at a desk job doing something I hate. But I’m here doing something I love, and you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
We ended up talking for about 15 minutes, about life and death, about his fears and his dreams. Before he returned to the cushy environs of TPC Southwind, Lyle sought out the hospital employee to apologize again for not meeting some of the kids in their rooms, like Allenby had done for him all those years ago. She gently put a hand on his shoulder and tried to comfort him. “It’s OK,” she said. “I totally get it.”
Lyle worried that day whether his hopeful message would be heard, but I’ve never had a doubt.
As he spoke in the hallway, a patient wearing a navy blue Titleist hat had poked his head around the corner and stopped to listen in to our conversation.
When Lyle turned to leave, so too did the young eavesdropper.
Smiling ear to ear, he practically floated back to his hospital room.