At the Midwest Classic on the Web.com Tour this week, most players are trying to climb inside the top 25 on the money list to earn a spot onto the PGA Tour by the end of season. A great week here at the Nicklaus Golf Club outside Kansas City can jettison a player from these minor leagues to the luxuries of the PGA Tour.
Jarrod Lyle, who has experienced life on both the Web.com and big tour, is here after a two-year battle with cancer. Lyle is on a quest to discover if he still has what it takes to compete at this level. The 32-year-old Australian has not played in the U.S. since March 2012, when he learned of the return of the acute myeloid leukemia that he was first diagnosed with at 17.
Lyle, his wife Briony and 2-year-old daughter Lusi Joy are crisscrossing the country over the next few months in an RV. Much like the first homesteaders who set out more than a century ago from the east in search of land and opportunity in the west, Lyle is on a new expedition in his life, in search of a new frontier. And what the cancer has wrought doesn't make it easy for him to know exactly what will happen once he reaches his destination.
"The game is coming along nicely," Jarrod Lyle said. "I have been putting in a lot of work with it back in Australia with my coach. I'm excited to get back out and play and see how it's going to hold up. It's all well and good to hit balls on the range all day, but until you get out and put yourself under tournament conditions and a bit of tournament pressure, you're not going to really know how it's going to stack up."
After the Midwest Classic, Jarrod Lyle will take a week off and then play two more events on the Web.com Tour, which he's using as warm-ups for the regular tour. Due to his medical exemption, he has 20 starts to earn $283,825 and full PGA Tour status. "I would love to play great in those three tournaments, but if that doesn't happen, it will give me enough opportunity and time to go away from those three events to get myself ready for Las Vegas in October on the regular tour," Jarrod Lyle said.
When the cancer returned in March 2012, Jarrod Lyle was coming off a tie for fourth at the 2012 Northern Trust Open. That was his best career tour finish after earning his card through the Web.com Tour, where he won twice in 2008.
Like many of his peers, Jarrod Lyle was a hard-charging, emotional player full of aspirations, struggling to find a modicum of security as a tour player on the biggest stage in the game. Yet after coming close to death following his second bout with cancer, he now has a fuller perspective on life and golf's place in it.
"My whole outlook on golf has changed through this," he said. "If I can get another three, four or five years out of golf it would be awesome. But I said through the whole cancer treatment process that if I never hit another golf ball, I could walk away from the game and be happy."
Jarrod Lyle, who has $1.8 million in career PGA Tour earnings, takes very seriously his responsibility to his family. All tour players are independent contractors, and most of them must play well to put food on the table. The seven- and eight-digit endorsement deals that the big players command come usually as a result of wins and many top 10s.
"If I go out and miss 20 cuts and don't make a cent for the next two years, I will have to look at doing something else to support my family," Jarrod Lyle said. "I don't want to take my family around the world to chase a dream that isn't attainable anymore. That's the reality of something like this comeback. At least I can say I tried, and if it doesn't work I can go do something else."
Jarrod Lyle has considered giving up the pro game many times. He was in the hospital for nine months during his first bout with cancer when he was 17. During the second bout in 2012, he went through three rounds of chemotherapy before undergoing a double cord blood transplant that included blood from the umbilical cords of both an American and a German child.
In remission since March 2012, Jarrod Lyle has played in two events in Australia. In November, he made the cut at the Australian Masters in his first event in 20 months, but that experience helped him realize that he was nowhere close to where he needed to be to compete on a full-time basis.
"I was fine for the first two days," said Jarrod Lyle of that week. "But then on the weekend the legs and the head got tired. Everything was just exhausted. I felt like I had to crawl the last few holes. But I'm happy that I got out and did it. It gave me a platform to see where I was mentally and physically in a tournament."
In February, Jarrod Lyle missed the cut in his second comeback start in Australia, but he felt better about his game than he did in November. He said his ballstriking is stronger now than it was before he got sick in 2012. "I've had a chance to get away and slowly work on things. I feel like everything is in a good spot," he said. "I don't feel like there are going to be any issues with me walking four days.
Still, it's going to be a learning curve. It's like being a rookie trying to figure out how everything is going to go in a tournament. It feels like I'm starting out fresh with a clean slate." Some of the residual side effects of the transplant for Jarrod Lyle include dry eyes and the feeling of having a chronic head cold, but it's nothing that's going to stop him from playing golf, he said.
It was Briony Lyle's idea to take the RV to tour stops around the U.S. Planning to do all the driving themselves, the Lyles' plans include a stop at the Grand Canyon in October during the trip to the Shriners Hospital for Children Open in Las Vegas. They want the freedom to explore without the constraints of airports. On their way to Kansas City, they visited friends in St. Louis, the home of the Gateway Arch, the famous 630-foot steel monument to the westward expansion of the United States. Jarrod Lyle has already passed through one new frontier in his battle and survival in a near-death experience with cancer. Yet like anyone on a journey to a new place, he has fears. He worries about leaving the safety blanket of Australia with the doctors and the people who know his history. And he is scared that he could find out over the next few months that he has nothing left in his game. But as his little redheaded Lusi Joy reminds him each day with her spirited presence, he is alive, and that makes all the difference. Golf can never take the place of that.