Cancer sucks. This insidious disease affects us all, and it rocked the golf community this week with the passing of Australian Jarrod Lyle on Wednesday at age 36. The husband and father of two girls — Lusi and Jemma — was taken from us far too soon.
“We met because I was his hero. He has been mine ever since,” four-time PGA Tour winner Robert Allenby wrote in a heart-wrenching essay for PlayersVoice last week after Lyle’s wife, Briony, announced he had decided to receive palliative care and forego further treatment.
Allenby originally met Lyle at the hospital some 20 years ago. That’s how long Lyle waged battle with cancer, beating it twice — firstly as a teenager and again during the height of his golf career in 2012 — but he couldn’t outrun the dark shadow of the disease.
“Perhaps one of the greatest reality checks that life is just not always fair,” friend and fellow Australian golfer Greg Chalmers told PGATour.com.
Lyle was 17 when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, which begins in the bone marrow cells and spreads through blood, but he defied the odds and in 2004 turned professional, won twice on the Web.com Tour and was living his dream on the PGA Tour.
Lyle’s world came crashing down just when it never seemed better. Just a few weeks after recording a career-best fourth place finish at the 2012 Northern Trust Open and with his first child on the way, Lyle learned that his cancer had returned.
His wife, Briony, was induced on March 10, 2012, so he could cherish holding his baby girl, Lusi Joy, before beginning his next rounds of treatment.
I remember interviewing Lyle for a story when he was on the comeback trail. The affable Aussie was a good mate and a better bloke who fought with humour and the heart of a lion.
He told me how the treatment protocols had changed a great deal since 1999, when Lyle was confined to a hospital bed at Royal Children’s Hospital for nine months and wondered if he would ever regain his health and fulfill his dream to play on the PGA Tour.
Lyle didn’t want to know his chances of survival, but he knew they weren’t good.
If they told me I had a 20% chance of living, I’d think: ‘Is it even worth fighting?’ he said. "As long as I didn’t know, I was going to fight like hell, no matter what, to beat it again.
It took a full year after he beat leukemia the first time before he had the energy to walk a golf course again, but by 2004 he was a card-carrying PGA Tour of Australasia member. Lyle still remembered the parting words of his doctor after another clean blood test in late 2006: “I never want to see you again.”
If he got a common cold, Lyle told me, he worried it could be the return of cancer.
“You never stop wondering, but you also learn that you have to enjoy every minute of your life,” he said.
Lyle was blown away by the support from his fellow players, tour officials, and people who learned his story and were compelled to contact him.
At the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational, players organised a “get well” video and many wore Leuk the Duck pins, the mascot for Challenge, an Australian organisation that supports kids with cancer and that Lyle was a beneficiary of, during his recovery. Lyle was touched by these gestures at a time when his bottomless supply of determination was being tested.
“They hit me as hard as they could to get me through that first round of chemo and kill everything in my system, both good and bad,” he said.
On June 8, 2012, he had a bone marrow transplant. Afterwards, he lived in Melbourne so he could be near the hospital, and went there three times a week for transfusions and checkups during the first three months.
Lyle became a man thankful for whatever time he had to see his girls grow up. He missed golf — “it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said — but raising his daughters occupied his mind, gave him reason to smile, and a new purpose.
“Before all this, if I didn’t play golf it was like, shoot, I wasted a day,” he said.
He summed up Lusi for me in four words: “A fiery, little redhead.” Lyle blamed himself for spoiling her rotten, and said he wouldn’t trade being around to see her formative years.
Amazed at the outpouring of support, he concluded there was only one way he could possibly thank all of his supporters: To make it all the way back and hit that first drive, and he did so 20 months later at the Talisker Masters, a PGA Tour of Australasia event.
All of golf rooted for him to split the fairway. He played four times in 2014 and 10 PGA Tour events in the 2014-15 and
Lyle embraced a philosophy that a bad day on a golf course was better than a good day in a hospital.
The return of cancer was his worst fear.
For a third time, he was flat on his back in a hospital bed with tubes everywhere. This time, he endured fewer doses of chemotherapy, but they packed a more powerful punch. In early December 2017, he underwent stem-cell transplant surgery. By July, he posted on Instagram that the toll of treatments had left him unable to fight.
In announcing his death, his wife issued these final words from Lyle: “My time was short, but if I’ve helped people think and act on behalf of those families who suffer through cancer, hopefully it wasn’t wasted.”
Not by a longshot.