Out of the Fire
Burn victim Cathy Gerring braves an agonizing comeback
Where was Cathy Ger-ring? The bottom line was ominous. The final score listed at last week's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship read GERRING...WD. After only three holes Gerring, whose attempts to return from a horrific 1992 accident had so far gotten her nowhere, had hurried off the course and sped away. "I went to the doctor's and got a cortisone shot in my hand," she explained a few hours later. "He said, 'This is going to hurt,' and you know what? I almost laughed."
Six years ago last weekend, Gerring was in a buffet line at the Sara Lee Classic when a caterer spilled alcohol on a live flame. The 1990 Bounceback Player of the Year, who had shot from 90th to fourth on the money list that season, was engulfed in flames. "I put up my hands and they caught fire. I thought I was dying," says Gerring, 37, who remembers every instant of her ordeal from the moment her husband, Jim, tackled her and extinguished the blaze to her 12 days at Vanderbilt Medical Center, where she screamed through twice-daily sessions in which seven layers of burned skin were scraped from her face and hands.
"It's ironic. I was a touch player, a hands player, and now I can hardly feel my hands," says the former Ohio State All-America. For more than a year, unable to grip a club, she wore elastic gloves over her skin grafts. In 1996, after three full seasons on the sidelines, she rejoined the tour but made only one cut in 10 events. This spring she redoubled her efforts, constantly fiddling with her grip and swing, seeking the touch she had lost, but the results were worse than ever: No cuts made in six tries. Her earnings are $0. Her name does not appear on the tour's weekly list of players.
"I'm at the bottom of the barrel," she said after shooting 82-86 at the City of Hope two weeks ago to miss another cut. Then came the Chick-fil-A, where the pain in her hands was so intense that she flinched each time she hit the ball. "A mental disaster," she called her three-hole outing. "Being scared of pain is a horrible feeling. I'm like a football player who hears footsteps—the guy who goes down before he's hit."
Down but not out, Gerring returned to her Cornelius, N.C., home with what she calls good news: "I have acute tendinitis and a small stress fracture. By changing my grip and hitting two or three hundred balls a day, I put too much pressure on my right hand, but with rest I might be able to play in three weeks."
Still, a touch player with little or no sensation in her hands probably has a limited future, and Gerring gets constant reminders of the odds stacked against her. On hot days, her hands get puffy because most of their sweat glands were destroyed. On cold days, her fingers ache. She also suffers from paresthesia, a pain she compares to being stabbed by needles.
Her pride is undamaged. "What really hurts is that I got to the top of my sport, and now I have to crawl and scratch to be the same person I was," says Ger-ring. "Maybe I should quit, but I want to make that choice myself, not let this horrible injury do it."
Her supporters include husband Jim, pro emeritus at Muir-field Village in Dublin, Ohio; her brother, former Tour pro Bill Kratzert; best friend Juli Inkster; and sons Zach and Jayme. "Zach's nine. He's been to a few of my tournaments," she says. "When someone asked for my autograph, he said, 'Mom, they must have known you when you were good.' "
Gerring, who keeps playing partly to set an example for her sons, hopes to tee it up unflinchingly on May 14 at the McDonald's LPGA Championship, the tour's next major. She believes in fighting fire with competitive fire. "I'd give anything to get into contention even once," she says. "Just once—then all this would be easier to live with. Maybe it'll happen at the McDonald's."