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Fighting fire with fire

Published Nov. 26, 1995|Updated Oct. 5, 2005

Fall has come to northern Ohio, and with it a cool blast of air that leaves the Muirfield Village Golf Club almost deserted. A few hardy souls brave the conditions, and Cathy Gerring normally might be one of them.

But days such as this make it difficult for Gerring to do what she loves best: hit golf balls. Her hands tingle when the ball explodes off the club. Practicing is unproductive. There is no thought of even taking the clubs out.

So Gerring goes about her usual routine, taking her son on a field trip, meeting her husband at the club for lunch, devouring any news she can get about her beloved Ohio State Buckeyes and pondering the golf career that has been put on hold for nearly four years because of a freak accident that left her badly burned.

Gerring has few complaints and says so. Her husband, Jim, is the head golf professional at Muirfield, hired by Jack Nicklaus after he designed and opened the club some 20 years ago. Sons Zack and Jayme are the joy of her life. Plans are in the works for a new house in this Columbus suburb.

"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," she said. "What I've had happen to me is so small compared to what others have had happen to them."

But something is definitely missing.

"From the time I went to college, all I wanted to do was play a competitive sport," Gerring said. "Golf was my avenue to compete. To have that absent from my life for so long at such a prime time of my career, that's probably what's been the most difficult."

Gerring, 34, returns to the game she did not leave by choice for this week's JCPenney Classic at the Innisbrook-Hilton Resort. The PGA Tour's Jay Haas asked her to play with him in the mixed-team event, and after some deliberation, Gerring accepted.

It will be her first tournament since she was injured April 25, 1992.

"She lost something that she had, that she used as an outlet," her husband said. "Golf was her way of showing her competitive spirit. I'm sure she's anxious to find out if it's still there, if it still burns."

"I'm on fire'

There is irony in Jim Gerring's words, but he doesn't seem to notice. It is just an expression. But Cathy Gerring was burned badly when she accidentally was doused with fuel.

The Gerrings never will forget that cool day in Old Hickory, Tenn. She had been in a bit of a slump early in the year, but was encouraged by her round, shooting par 72 in the second round of the Sara Lee Classic and putting herself in position for a charge in the final round.

Gerring was hoping to recapture the form that helped her win three LPGA tournaments and more than $400,000 in her breakthrough year of 1990, when she also helped the U.S. team win the Solheim Cup.

She was anxious to talk about her play with Jim over lunch. They headed to a hospitality tent, where Jim helped himself to some chicken-and-rice stir fry. That looked good, Cathy thought. Jim pointed her toward the buffet line. A large wok simmered.

Two catering employees stood behind the wok. One was beginning to refuel a burner that apparently had gone out. As he poured denatured alcohol into the burner, he saw the flame. The burner had not gone out. Panicking, he jerked the can. Cathy was doused with fuel. In an instant, it ignited.

"All of a sudden I had this fireball come at me," she recalled. "I remember trying to spit to keep it out of my mouth. All of a sudden, I'm on fire."

Skin burned off her face and hands. She screamed in agony, a horrible sound Jim still can hear today. He knocked over tables and chairs and tackled Cathy, trying to smother the flames.

"People were yelling at me, "She's still on fire!' " Jim said. "Her hands were still burning. Skin was dripping off. Oh, she was in pain. She was screaming. She thought she was going to die."

Doctors, fearing her throat would swell from the burning, gave her little in the way of pain killers. She was airlifted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, 20 miles away.

"She looked awful'

Cathy's mother, Joanne, had taken Zack, who was 4, to Opryland. The plan was to meet back at the hotel sometime late in the afternoon, which would give Cathy plenty of time to practice.

A week earlier, while spending time with his grandmother in a car, Zack noticed a helicopter landing on a hospital roof. He asked why. "That's when people are almost going to die," Joanne said. "They have to get them to the hospital real quick."

Now they had returned from Opryland late in the afternoon. Joanne was surprised not to find Cathy and Jim. She noticed the hotel message light was on, but before she could get word that Cathy was in the hospital, they saw the horrible scene on television. There was the news of Cathy's accident, with footage of her being taken to the hospital.

"They see me loaded onto a helicopter and my mom is on the phone waiting to hear about me," Cathy said. "I still get upset thinking about it. Now my 4-year-old thinks, "My mom is going to die. They only put somebody in a helicopter because they're going to die.' "

Jim had plenty of time to think about that possibility. He had a 45-minute drive to the hospital. "She looked awful," he said. "Her face. It's hard for me to believe it healed."

Juli Inkster, Cathy's best friend on the LPGA Tour, was on the golf course when the accident occurred. There was a commotion, sirens all around, a helicopter trying to land on the driving range where players still were hitting balls. Rumor was a spectator suffered a heart attack.

Inkster didn't find out Gerring was involved until she had finished her round. She rushed to the hospital and was allowed to see Cathy that night.

"It's something you never forget," Inkster said. "It didn't even look like Cathy. Her face looked like a basketball with a couple of slits in it. And the next day she was worse. It's something you hope nobody has to experience."

Earlier this year, Gerring's $25-million lawsuit against Service America, the catering company that serviced the food tent, was settled for an undisclosed amount.

She gladly would give back the money to have things be as they were before the accident. Gerring knows her golf game never can be the same. She had two miscarriages _ attributed to the trauma she endured _ before giving birth to her second son, Jayme, in September 1994.

"I'm not one to believe that things happen for a reason," said Gerring, allowing her only hint of bitterness. "I certainly am not under the belief that God was sitting up there saying, "I'm going to burn Cathy; let's see how she handles it.'

"I feel lucky that I didn't die. I easily could have not made it through. But gosh, there were 10,000 people there (at the golf tournament) and one person got burned. Maybe I'm not as lucky as you might think."

Tools of her trade

Gerring spent 12 days in the hospital in Nashville before returning home to Dublin and starting rehabilitation at Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. After several days, her face returned to normal.

But it was her hands, the tools of her trade, that lost seven layers of skin and sustained third-degree burns.

For a year, she wore nylon gloves at almost all times. She had two skin-graft operations. "They weren't done to beautify or wash dishes or hold a child," Jim said. "They were done in an attempt to play golf."

The hands are often the forgotten element in the golf swing. There is so much talk about shoulder turns and leg movement and wrist action, but the hands are the only body part attached to the club. Gerring said she has lost distance with her drives and her touch is not quite the same. Her hands swell after hitting too many practice balls. Changes in weather affect them.

Inkster has made it a point to visit Gerring often throughout the year on her way to and from tournaments. She has encouraged Gerring to return to the LPGA, if for no other reason than to satisfy Gerring's curiosity about whether she can do it.

"She was a great player and I think she still can be," Inkster said. "She said she's lost distance, but she hasn't. She thinks she used to hit the ball 290 (yards). Maybe she's lost a little zip on her ball, but she'll get that back. She's just got to get over some of these hangups. I think it's more mental than physical. She's got to learn to go out and just play golf."

Golf a family affair

For as long as she can remember, Cathy Gerring has been playing golf. She was the typical pro shop brat, learning to play from her father, Bill Kratzert Jr., still the head pro at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club _ where he has worked since before Cathy was born.

Her brother, Bill Kratzert III, is a PGA Tour veteran with four victories. Her husband, Jim, is a golf pro. And Jim's brother is a golf pro.

Then there is her passion for sports, starting with everything at Ohio State, where she played golf before joining the LPGA Tour in 1984. Name the game, college or pro, she loves it. The Gerring home is awash in sports memorabilia, including the cap of every major-league baseball and NFL team. One of her dogs is named "Aikman."

Among her heroes are Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight and Ohio State football legend Woody Hayes _ which perhaps is a clue about the kind of intensity she brings to her sport.

"That's what's been hard," she said. "I want to be competing. That was just such a huge part of my life. That's what drove me to get up in the morning. That something missing is that competitive spirit. My spirit never left, but the physical ability was gone."

"You think about how she was raised," Jim said. "She was brought up around a very active, sports-oriented family. It was just there. Every day, that was part of her deal. Now, it was gone. I think she tried other directions to fulfill that need. It's not so much the game of golf. It's the competition."

That's why Gerring wants to give golf another shot. She had thought about trying to qualify for next year's U.S. Women's Open, but it falls during the same week of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield. She didn't want to be away from home during that time.

And although she would be exempt from qualifying for regular LPGA events because of her success in 1990, she is reluctant to take spots from other players. Inkster chides her for this. "She's been giving up her spot for four years," Inkster said. "She earned that spot."

"I know in her heart she has wanted to play, try it again," said Haas, a member of this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team and Gerring's partner in the 1991 JCPenney. "She was one of their top players when this accident happened, and to have this taken away, I'm sure she'd give up what she has and trade places to have her slot on tour again.

"Once we've tasted that competition and victory, it's hard to just set that aside and not have it again. I know in the back of her mind, she'd like to try it again and be successful again. This is a good opportunity for her."

Gerring isn't sure what to expect. She went to Sea Island, Ga., last week, where her brother-in-law, John, is the head pro, to work on her game.

The JCPenney format _ two days of modified alternate shot and two days of best ball _ will be easier than competing in a 72-hole stroke-play tournament.

"I knew in the back of my mind that I would always try to play another tournament," Gerring said. "But I never really set a time because I didn't want to be disappointed if I wasn't ready.

"This is a big test. It compares to one of the most important things I'll ever do in my whole life. It's going to tell me a lot about what the future holds, whether I'll ever be able to play the tour again.

"What's going to be hard about returning is knowing what's on the line and the sadness I would feel if it doesn't work out. I might find out that I just can't do it."