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Lye experiences new beginning before Champions Tour start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ever since 50-year-old professional golfers found a way to extend their careers and replenish their bank accounts with a golden parachute called the Senior Tour, this avenue paved with riches has also been a metaphor for being given a new lease on life.

Mark Lye doesn't need such metaphors.

Trying to combine an eight-year career as an analyst on The Golf Channel while renewing his playing career on what this year became the Champions Tour, Lye is hopeful, but not certain, about the length of his lease. A little more than a year ago, Lye received a diagnosis of melanoma for the second time.

Though he has been given encouraging reports since having the tumor removed and undergoing chemotherapy through a procedure called a limb perfusion, as well as taking cancer-fighting drugs Interferon and Leukine, Lye admits that the uncertainty is mentally debilitating.

"It's kind of like walking around with an anvil over your head waiting for it to drop," Lye said last week.

Which is why his duties for The Golf Channel, which now involve pre- and post-round analysis in the studio, and playing competitive golf for the first time since 1994, is a good way to keep his mind off his condition.

Lye, who received a sponsor's exemption to play in this week's $1.5 million Constellation Energy Classic beginning Friday at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley, has surprised himself in his first three tournaments. He finished tied for 27th in the Senior British Open in July, tied for 47th in the 3M Championship in August and tied for 29th at last month's Allianz Championship.

"I've been shooting some pretty good scores," said Lye, who turned 50 last November. "Now I'm trying to get my equipment up to speed."

Having retired prematurely at age 43 after undergoing major hand surgery and being told he wouldn't be able to play again for two years, Lye says he has learned valuable lessons analyzing other players, particularly those in the hunt on Sunday.

"I think I'm playing smarter,"' said Lye, who until this year had been an on-course analyst at PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Buy.com Tour events. "I've learned a lot from watching winners each week."

Lye was a solid player on the PGA Tour, earning more than $1.8 million in an 18-year career, making the cut in 332 of 486 starts and winning once, in 1983 at the Bank of Boston Classic. He came close to glory when he took a 3-shot lead after 36 holes of the 1984 Masters before finishing tied for sixth.

A funny, if apocryphal, story about Lye happened during that week in Augusta. A golf fan reportedly called a sports department at a newspaper in Kansas and asked who was leading the Masters at its midpoint. The editor asked someone to read the wire.

"Lye," he was told.

"OK," the editor said, then explained to the caller that the leader was Jack Nicklaus.

It was also during the Masters that year that Lye witnessed one of the most talked-about putts in golf lore. Standing in the 10th fairway on Sunday afternoon and still in contention, Lye saw Ben Crenshaw's 60-foot birdie putt from the fringe go in. Crenshaw later won his first major championship.

Though he never came that close to winning a major again, Lye played steadily until 1991, when he was first found to have melanoma shortly after going through a divorce. In retrospect, Lye knows that it was the result of letting a mole below his left knee go untreated for too long.

Lye missed several months, and his game didn't return when he rejoined the tour in 1992.

"Bill Calfee from the PGA Tour told me about a new golf channel that was starting up, and gave me a business card," recalled Lye. "That card sat in my wallet for nearly three years, and then I got a call from someone at The Golf Channel asking me if I wanted a job."

At the time, Lye was rehabbing from the hand injury. Lye had torn a ligament in his right hand, the result of hitting a tree root at a tournament in Memphis in 1994. He would play only once more in a PGA Tour event to concentrate on his new career.

"They weren't paying a lot, and there are guys on the tour who wouldn't do that," recalled Lye, whose other claim to fame was being part of "Jake Trout and the Flounders," a band formed by fellow tour player Peter Jacobsen. "But I didn't have anything else to do."

It turned out to be a blessing in one special way: It was there that Lye met his future wife, Lisa, who worked in public relations. Things were going well until July 2, 2002, the day Lye found out that the ominous bump in his left leg was cancerous.

He had Stage 3 melanoma.

"If it gets to Stage 4, it's not very good," said Lye, who was also found to have diabetes when he was 16.

While others with his condition often resort to experimental drugs rather than invasive surgery, Lye took the advice of his doctors and underwent a limb perfusion, where the main artery in his leg was disconnected and reattached to a heart-and-lung machine, and high doses of chemotherapy were fed directly into the leg while it was being heated.

As a result of the limb perfusion, Lye's leg ballooned to twice its normal size.

"It was pretty gross," said Lye.

Lye also began taking a cancer-fighting drug called Interferon, but was so ill from the side effects that he started with another drug, Leukine, instead. With melanomas, traditional chemotherapy is not deemed effective. However, melanoma does respond to immunotherapy in some cases.

The leg eventually returned to its normal size and in recent months, Lye has regained most of the nearly 30 pounds he lost, as well as his hair. Though he doesn't have the same mobility in the left ankle that he had before, Lye says it is a small price to pay for what he hopes eventually is a clean bill of health.

Until then, he thinks about his condition constantly.

"I'll get to the point where I'm more comfortable with it," Lye said after he finished a practice round yesterday.

His return to competition came when Lye received an invitation to play in the Senior British Open at Turnberry as a result of his victory in Boston two decades ago. While he played with irons that had the wrong shafts put in them, Lye was pleased with his results.

"I'm a neophyte," Lye said after. "I'm competing against guys who've been competing all the way through. It's a totally different animal. I never thought I'd be playing again. It's hard to get into the feel of the game and what you have to think about."

Given what else Lye has to think about it these days, playing in a Champions Tour event is a terrific distraction. He also hopes that it's just the beginning of a long-term lease.

At a glance

What: Constellation Energy Classic

Where: Hayfields Country Club, Hunt Valley

When: Friday through Sunday

Par: 36-36-72

Length: 7,031 yards

Purse: $1.5 million

2002 winner: J.C. Snead

TV: The Golf Channel (Friday-Sunday, 1:30-4 p.m.)

Tickets: Practice round tickets are $15 each and single-round tickets are $20 each.

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