Three years have passed since the accident, and I rarely a day goes by without someone saying to Cathy Gerring, "You're lucky to be alive." Whenever this happens, Gerring longs to say she was not so lucky. She wants to shout that there were 10,000 people at that LPGA tournament and she was the only person badly burned. Burned! From a fire that started in a cooking burner in a hospitality tent! If she had been hit by a golf ball or suffered a torn ligament, well, that would be understandable. But burned? Incomprehensible. When people say she should thank her lucky stars, she holds back the tears and just nods her head.
Then there are those awkward moments when people don't know exactly what to say, so they blurt out, "Well, Cathy, everything happens for a reason." How preposterous! "Yeah, right. God is up there saying, 'I'm going to burn Cathy Gerring today. Let's see how she handles it,' " she would like to retort. Instead, she bites her lip.
Last month, three years after the accident, Gerring's $25 million lawsuit against the catering company that was providing food that day in the hospitality tent was finally settled for an undisclosed amount. But there is no sense of closure, no sigh of relief. "No amount of money would ever replace what I lost," Gerring says. The Sara Lee Classic in Old Hickory, Tenn., the tournament at which she was burned, was played again last week. She was not there.
It was chilly in Old Hickory on April 25, 1992, three days before Gerring's 31st birthday. Gerring had just shot an even-par 72 in the second round of the Sara Lee, and her husband, Jim, the head pro at Muirfield Village Golf Club, in Dublin, Ohio, was waiting for her. "What the hell were you thinking on 17?" he asked, laughing. On that hole, her 17th but actually the par-5, 485-yard 8th on the course, she had second-guessed her decision to use a three-iron on her second shot in midswing—"This is too much club," she told herself at the top of her backswing. The ball landed at the edge of the lake that guards the green. With one foot in the water, she hit a nifty shot close to the hole. Expecting a bogey, she made a birdie.
They joked about this reversal of fortune. Maybe things were finally going her way. The 1991 season had been a disappointment. Gerring's play suffered after she had an ear operation in February and returned to the tour in three weeks instead of taking six weeks off as her doctor had recommended. Her breakthrough season had been 1990, during which she won three times and had 13 top-10 finishes. She was fourth on the money list, with $487,000, and was a member of the victorious U.S. team for the inaugural Solheim Cup.
Cathy and Jim headed for a hospitality tent for lunch. Jim went to get a drink, Cathy to the buffet table for some chicken. As she stood in front of the buffet, a catering employee started to refuel a burner, called a réchaud, that had apparently gone out. As the man poured denatured alcohol from a can into the réchaud, he realized there was a tiny blue flame still burning. The flame grew. He panicked and jerked the can, dousing Cathy with fuel. She heard a horrible sound, the sound of a gas grill igniting but magnified a hundred times. The alcohol caught fire. A fireball engulfed her from the waist up. She heard Jim scream, heard him bumping into tables to reach her. Her face was sizzling, her skin dripping off her. Jim tackled her and smothered the fire with his body. Everyone was too shocked to think. Cathy was the one who had to say, "Call 9-1-1."
"I'm going to die; I can't take this pain much longer," she thought. "My brain is burning up. My hands."
"Jim, please don't let me die here," she said. "Tell Zach his mommy loves him." She was airlifted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, 20 miles away. Her hands felt as if someone had submerged them in a pot of boiling water and held them there. She couldn't imagine that dying would be any more painful. She lost six to seven skin layers on parts of her hands and suffered deep second-and third-degree burns there. Below her left thumb, the skin was burned to the bone. She lost four to five skin layers on areas of her face, with second-degree burns there, too.
Gerring spent 12 days in the hospital in Nashville, and she can still hear the screams—her screams, the screams of other burn patients—that echoed through the halls when someone was going through debridement, a torturous medical procedure that involves scraping the damaged skin off with a cloth, which is part of the treatment for burn victims.
When she returned to her home in Dublin, Gerring started rehab at nearby Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. For a year, day and night, she wore nylon and elastic gloves that fit as tight as a tourniquet, to keep the scar tissue flattened. Over the next year she had two skin-graft operations on her hands. "I had to exhaust every chance I could to try to play golf again," she says.