Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the June 17, 2011 issue of Golfweek.
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The sun is beating down on Jarrod Lyle, but he remains outside the doors at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s difficult to explain, really. He wants to go inside, to marvel at the medical advancements, to share his experiences, to offer encouragement . . . but he goes no farther than the lobby.
“It just brings back a lot of memories that I have of kids who never got out,” Lyle said. “It’s left a black hole in me. It’s like a brick wall that I can’t break through.”
Yet this, he says, is progress. He’s signing autographs under tents. He’s helping patients color visors. He’s playing mini-golf and high-fiving and inspiring, in his own way, on his own time.
“Today, believe it or not, was a big step for me,” Lyle, 29, said after last week’s Golf-A-Round charity event at St. Jude with Ben Crane and Patrick Reed. “It’s time to get over it and put it behind me a little bit. But I can’t forget about it. This is part of my life forever.”
Here is a gabby, 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Aussie who, on this morning, is soaked in sweat as he shuffles back and forth in a grassy patch outside St. Jude, the beneficiary of the PGA Tour’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. Twelve years ago, at 17, Lyle was confined in a hospital just like this, the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, stricken with acute myeloid leukemia. Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of surviving. During his nine months of treatment, athletes stopped by to visit. So did celebrities. Lyle wanted to be a golfer, so he kept pushing, hoping, dreaming. But chemotherapy was taxing. He was lying in the intensive-care unit, tubes strewn about his body. He was in no mood to chat, to reflect, to see anybody, especially when Dave Rogers, the CEO of Challenge, a cancer-support network, came to the door.
“Hey, I’ve got somebody who wants to meet you,” he said, peering inside Lyle’s room.
“No, I’m not in the mood,” Lyle replied.
“But I think you’ll be surprised . . . ”
And his hero, Robert Allenby, popped into the entryway. They talked for 20 minutes or 40 minutes or an hour; Lyle can’t remember.
“When you get out of here,” Allenby told him, “I want to take you to play some golf.”
And so they did, two weeks later, at the exclusive Capital Golf Club. They’ve been good buddies ever since.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that Allenby has had a part in all of Lyle’s most significant accomplishments in golf. When Lyle won the club championship at his home course, Allenby won his first PGA Tour event (in 2000) on the same day. . . . When Lyle qualified for the Tour, he had played a practice round with Allenby. . . . When Lyle qualified for the Australian Open, he had played a practice round with Allenby. . . . When Lyle qualified for the U.S. Open (and British), he had played a practice round with Allenby.
“I always remind him, ‘Mate, this is the easiest game in the world. Just remember what you’ve been through,’ ” Allenby said. “And I always told him, even way back then: If you can fight through this, you can do anything you possibly want in life. And he has.”
Despite his philanthropy overseas as an ambassador for Challenge, Lyle was making his first trip to St. Jude, a poignant, powerful reminder of a past he wants to leave behind. “I don’t know what I feel,” he said. “I find it hard to walk through the door. The only time I’ve been back to the Children’s Hospital (in Melbourne) was for my checkups to see my doctor there. I did that for five years, and the last time he said, ‘I never want to see you again.’ I can still hear those words in my head. That’ll be with me forever.” Since then, he’s spoken with his doctor a few times via email, but he wants to cut ties. The guilt is suffocating, the questions haunting. Even at age 29.
“Just the smell of it, the look of it,” Lyle said. “Seeing kids lying in there. Are they gonna get out? Are they gonna get out and live their dreams?”
Briony Harper, Lyle’s girlfriend of 3½ years, says that’s the part Lyle can’t overcome. “He woke up next to those kids one day, and then they’re gone the next,” she said, “and he just sort of wonders why those young kids didn’t get a chance like he did.”
A visit to St. Jude provided no definitive answers, at least not yet. When the charity event was over, when Lyle, Crane and Reed drove back to TPC Southwind, patients returned to the care center, where the walls are adorned with butterflies and monkeys, saltwater fish tanks and flatscreen TVs, bright colors and shooting stars. In one hallway, paintings and drawings form The Teen Art Gallery. One painting is called Hope’s Journey. Another is called A New Life. Another is called Finding Tranquility.
Just down the hall is another way for patients to express themselves: The ABCs of Cancer.
“W,” they wrote, is for wishing and wanting.
“O” for open mind.
“T” for tears.
And so on.
In the spring, the hospital hosts a prom in which patients wear borrowed tuxedos and dresses. During Halloween, everyone wears costumes.
“They’re not making it feel like a hospital,” Lyle said, “because that is a scary thing. I know it scared the hell out of me. You go through a lot when you’re in there.”
Which is why it helps when the affable Aussie lumbers through the courtyard and lights up a few faces. He remembers the impact Allenby had on him. How it helped Lyle keep his mind off his hair loss, or his upcoming treatment, or his life outside those concrete walls.
“You just can’t give up,” Lyle said. “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.”
And then Lyle walked haltingly into the St. Jude lobby. He stopped, spun around and waited by the revolving door, hoping his message was heard.