News & Opinion

Caddie master shoulders life’s heavy load

NORTHFIELD, Ill. – At this week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational, virtually all of the players are wearing a yellow ribbon in support of Jarrod Lyle. He has competed at the game’s highest level but ultimately has been unable to beat his toughest foe: cancer.

Lyle, 36, a former PGA Tour player from Australia, has lived with the diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia since he was 17, but he always found a way around the disease. This week, his wife, Bri, announced on social media that her husband was stopping treatment and starting palliative care.

“My heart breaks as I type this message,” Bri Lyle wrote on Facebook. “Earlier today Jarrod made the decision to stop active treatment and begin palliative care. He has given everything that he’s got to give, and his poor body cannot take anymore. We’ll be taking him closer to home in the next couple of days, so he can finally leave the hospital.”

We have endured many losses in the golf community recently – major champions Peter Thomson, Doug Ford and Hubert Green, to name a few – but all lived relatively full lives.

In covering the Western Amateur this week at Sunset Ridge Country Club on the north side of Chicago (scores), I spent some time with a cancer survivor.

Greg Kunkel – or Kunks, as he is known around Chicago – was diagnosed four years ago this month with prostate and bladder cancer. He has undergone 11 surgeries relating to the disease. Kunkel faces one more operation in September, on his parathyroid gland, because he has experienced numerous kidney stones.

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Greg Kunkel, a cancer survivor, serves as the caddie master at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield, Ill., site of this week’s Western Amateur.

MORNING READ/ALEX MICELI
Greg Kunkel, a cancer survivor, serves as the caddie master at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield, Ill., site of this week’s Western Amateur.

For the past 27 years, Kunkel has been the caddie master at Sunset Ridge, where he has made a tremendous difference not only to the club but more importantly to its caddies and the game.

“I just said, if I'm going to do this and replace the guy [Tony Battistello] who's been here for 41 years, I’d better be committed. It's really hard to take a great caddie program and make it better,” Kunkel said. “It's really easy to take a crummy one and make it better, obviously. But I took a great one and made it greater. And I think that's the one thing I'm really proud of that I've been able to accomplish over the years.”

I first looked up Kunkel because of his reputation with Chicago’s professional athletes, notably former Bulls star Michael Jordan, the Bears’ Brian Urlacher and the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane.

“Well, Jordan was the most competitive guy I've ever met, and he had the best hands,” said Kunkel, who caddied for Jordan. “He was probably the best putter I've ever seen, but he was a horrible wedge player because he was real steep. He really struggled with bunker shots and full wedge shots because he just got too steep all the time. He was very stubborn, and he didn't want anyone to tell him how to do it. He would tell you he was the greatest athlete in the world and he doesn't need anyone telling him that, especially a caddie master.”

The walls of his office are plastered with photos and memorabilia from many of the professional athletes whom Kunkel has met, including the late Ron Santo of the Cubs and, of course, Jordan.

But what was more interesting in talking with Kunkel was the genuine affection that his caddies held for him. On his left wrist, Kunkel wore a green bracelet with the words “Kunks Strong,” a style that the caddies sold to raise money for him after his cancer diagnosis.

The caddies raised more than $30,000, but Kunkel returned his affection to them, donating the money to the scholarship fund For the Kids, which was started with Kunkel’s involvement and has awarded $1.3 million in scholarships.

As he sat in a golf cart talking about his love of being involved with caddieing, Kunkel also was paying attention to 22-year-old Patrick Flavin, who is from nearby Highwood and playing his final amateur tournament before he turns professional next week for the Illinois Open.

“I'm actually a very good caddie,” Kunkel said. “And I'm actually hoping that one of these kids asks me to caddie tomorrow in the ‘sweet 16’ [of match play] because I want to do it.”

Kunkel said that Flavin, who would go on to qualify for match play, added, “Mr. Kunkel, if I get to the sweet 16, we might have to talk.”

Lyle isn’t likely to survive cancer, but he will leave a mark on so many whom he touched in his short life.

Kunkel has survived cancer and will continue to connect with people, from a 13-year-old caddie to a professional athlete who is seeking solitude for 18 holes.

“Cancer's an unbelievable thing, and it really teaches you a lot about life and who your friends are,” Kunkel said. “It just made me a better person. It made me realize how lucky I was to have this job and have my wife and my kids, because everyone really kind of rallied for me. I honestly think that it's all about your attitude. I easily could have died. I just wasn't ready.” 

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli