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Cayeux still chasing dream after near-death accident

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Marc Cayeux can recall the worst day of his life in stunning detail.

He remembers it was shortly after 8 p.m., Sept. 24, 2010, southern Zimbabwe, when a white police truck swerved into his lane. He remembers taking his thumbs off the steering wheel, bracing for the collision and hearing the loud, sickening crunch.

He remembers rushing to unclip his seat belt, his 2011 Nissan X-trail upside down and in flames. He remembers being unable to move his shattered right leg, and that his left foot looked like it was dangling by a piece of floss.

He remembers seeing two covered bodies on the road, and he remembers screaming at his friend not to let them amputate his foot, because that was the easy way out in their country. He remembers being stretched out for five hours on the back of a single cab truck, his head banging against the tailgate, his only relief a canister of laughing gas.

Somehow, Cayeux, 38, remembers every grisly detail of his life-altering accident, but what remains hazy are the surgeries that would follow – so many that they all run together, a blur of skin grafts and titanium screws and shaved bones.

He spent seven weeks in the intensive care unit, three months in the hospital and four years on crutches. Last year was the first since the crash that he didn’t undergo some kind of procedure to fix some kind of ailment. Another operation, this time on his hernia, awaits later this year, once he loses weight and builds up strength in his surrounding muscles.

Soon, his number of surgeries – 28 – will match his lowest nine-hole score.

Marc Cayeux with Tiger Woods at the 2005 WGC-NEC Invitational (Getty)

MAYBE THE NAME DOESN’T sound familiar. It’s been a few years, after all.

Cayeux turned pro in 1996. Won his first tournament two years later. Collected nine Sunshine Tour titles, a trio of wins on the European Challenge Tour and assumed the unofficial title of Zimbabwe’s best player since the heady days of Nick Price, Tony Johnstone and Mark McNulty.

In 2005, Cayeux qualified for the WGC-NEC Invitational, and he played the first two rounds at Firestone with Tiger Woods. Fittingly for Cayeux, then 27, the biggest tournament of his career wasn’t without incident. Before departing for the U.S., he grabbed a hot barbecue skewer that left a quarter-sized burn on his left palm. Cayeux could barely swing a club when he arrived for practice rounds, so he stopped by a local sporting goods store to be fitted for a baseball batting glove that he wore on his grip hand. Grimacing with every swing, he still shot 71 in the first round.

Woods, who admitted that he’d never heard of Cayeux before the week, was thoroughly impressed: “Incredible. Absolutely fantastic. The fact that he even went out there and played and grinded it out like he did was absolutely fantastic. It was fun to watch.”

Yes, Cayeux had arrived. Over the next few years, he would test his skills against Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Ernie Els. “Those are guys you look up to,” he said. “When you do get to play with them, it’s quite nerve-wracking, but that’s what you play for. It’s something you’ll never forget.”

A world-beater, he was not, but Cayeux briefly climbed inside the top 200 in the world rankings, and he was known amongst his peers as a quiet, dedicated player with a powerful and natural swing. “We all thought he was on the cusp of a good breakthrough,” Johnstone said. “We all thought it was just a matter of time before he won in Europe.”

Cayeux missed earning his 2010 European Tour card by about 40,000 euros. When his father, Mickey, suffered a stroke later that year, Cayeux decided to put his career on hold to stay with his family in Zimbabwe for two months.

“I’ll never regret it,” he said. “Family comes first.”

But by the fall of 2010, Cayeux’s focus had returned to his game. He was planning to head back home to Johannesburg to apply for a visa so he could try PGA Tour Q-School for the first time, and he’d even lined up a deal with a local businessman to finance his pursuit.

Within a few months, that donation would go toward a different cause.

Marc Cayeux's vehicle following his 2010 car crash (Cayeux family)

THE MASVINGO-CHIVHU ROAD in southern Zimbabwe is a bumpy, country, tar road with massive potholes and plenty of obstacles. All of the farm fences that line the road have been stolen, so cows, donkeys and goats roam freely. With no lines to mark the lanes, driving at night is particularly hazardous.

At 8:20 p.m. on Sept. 24, 2010, according to local reports, commanding Manyame district chief superintendent Tsitsi Sadzamare plowed her Mazda B1800 truck into a cow, swerved into the opposite lane and smashed head-on into Cayeux’s SUV.

It was total devastation. Cayeux peeled his broken body out of the crumpled car. Sadzamare died on the scene, as did another passenger in her vehicle.

“I saw pictures of the car,” Johnstone said, “and I have no idea how Marc survived. His legs were just completely smashed to smithereens.”

Cayeux required immediate attention. Back home, his wife, Jana, contacted emergency services in the capital city of Harare, but it would take the ambulance three hours to arrive because of the poor condition of the road. To save time, Cayeux was stabilized by a nurse who was nearby, loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and driven halfway. He arrived in Harare at 2:30 a.m.

“I remember arriving and seeing my mom and I said, ‘I’m sorry,’” Marc said. “I know it was an accident, and I know I didn’t cause it, but it’s just a horrible thing for her to go through.”

Cayeux’s insurance wouldn’t cover his medical expenses in Zimbabwe, and he didn’t trust the country’s healthcare system that was in shambles. So he organized a three-hour airlift to Johannesburg and arrived at 2 p.m. the next day – 18 hours after the accident – when he was finally given morphine to dull the pain.

Over the next three years, Cayeux would go under the knife more often than a sirloin. From the waist up, there was little indication that he’d nearly been killed – he had only a small cut on his nose and bruising on his right shoulder. The damage to his lower body was much more extensive. During the accident, his right knee was smashed four inches into his femur, shattering the bone completely. His left ankle basically needed to be reattached. And because of the seatbelt, there was a nasty gash across his stomach, from where the muscle had ripped away from the hipbone.

Skin grafts were performed. Screws and plates and pins were inserted. Both legs were shortened, about an inch. His family begged the doctors to get it right, that Marc was a professional golfer, but he was told he likely wouldn’t walk again, let alone resume his career.

That grim prognosis was difficult to absorb, but a week into the nearly two-month stay in the ICU, Jana, his wife of four months, had even more news: They were expecting twins.

LESS THAN TWO MONTHS later, Jana lost one of the twins.

Her life had become a juggling act: She was supposed to be on bed rest; she needed to care for their oldest son, Ross, who was 3; and she still drove 186 miles a day, making sure she was at the hospital in time for each of the three visiting periods per day. “I basically put my feelings aside to pick up and go,” she said. “Looking back today, I don’t know how I got through all that.”

Confined to a wheelchair for a year, Cayeux was discharged from the hospital three months after the accident but later returned to close an open wound on his right hip. During a checkup a few weeks later, doctors discovered that his right femur had not joined, so they performed a synthetic bone graft and tightened the screws. He was sent home the afternoon of May 13, but again, the timing couldn’t have been worse: That night, Jana went into labor, six weeks early. Instructed to remain still for six weeks, Marc missed the birth of their second child, Jason.

In unrelenting pain and with a bleak future, Cayeux slipped into a deep depression in 2011, a place so dark that his wife worried about his safety. “It got to be too much,” Jana said. “There were days when I literally had to make sure there was nothing around and that he’d taken his meds. I felt like I was a single parent trying to look after three kids at that stage.”

Johnstone kept in touch with the family, visiting during the tour’s co-sanctioned events in South Africa and receiving periodic updates on Marc’s condition. “But every time I spoke to him,” Johnstone said, “he had just had another major operation. I can’t believe a man can go through all of that and stay sane.”

Cayeux’s medical bills were skyrocketing, and each year he blew through his insurance limits by February. One day, Johnstone was in the Sky Sports TV booth with analyst Robert Lee when he mentioned Cayeux’s horrific injuries.

“Is there any chance we could get some help from the European Tour?” Johnstone asked.

Lee forwarded Johnstone’s written request to the board. It was quickly approved, and the tour’s Benevolent Trust helped cover most of Cayeux’s medical bills.

“They’ve done more than I could ever ask for,” Cayeux said. “I’d hate to think where I’d be without that.”

Marc Cayeux at the 2011 Open Championship International Qualifying (Getty)

CAYEUX LEARNED TO LAUGH to keep from crying.

When doctors sliced into his right femur bone (six times) and trimmed about an inch, he needed a specially designed shoe to move around. It was like walking on a plank. “I’ve got one short leg and one long leg,” he said. “I can’t walk around in circles on the golf course.”

When his left ankle was reattached about two degrees open, like a penguin’s, his first thought was about his golf swing: Well, I’d rather have my front foot open than closed.

And when he decided to have doctors cut into his perfectly intact left femur to even out his limbs and 6-foot frame, he saw one significant benefit: “When I fly economy class, I’ll have more legroom now.”

“There were a lot of doubtful days,” he said, “and it’s so easy to stay in the hole of being negative. You had to take a joke and re-channel the harshness of it in a funny way, because the good days are so few and far between.”

Which is why he remained involved with golf as much as possible.

After moving from the ICU to a regular hospital room, Cayeux watched as many tournaments as he could on TV. Each morning, the smell of freshly cut grass reminded him of dew-sweeping rounds at his home club, Serengeti Golf and Wildlife Estate. He had been out of the hospital for only five weeks when he wheeled into the 2011 Joburg Open.

“You could see the shock on their faces,” he said. “Some guys didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘Listen, I’m alive and that’s the most important thing.’” Then he smiled. “Now is your chance to try and make some money before I return.”

Though he spoke assuredly, Cayeux’s recovery was an arduous process. Physical therapy was exhausting, a series of weight-bearing exercises designed to get his bones to communicate and harden. His leg muscles resembled out-of-bounds stakes, and many of his days were spent sloshing around in a swimming pool. The searing pain made sleeping difficult.

“I came to grips with the fact that I’ll never be 100 percent again,” he said, “but I could push my body to get as close to that as possible.”

By the spring of 2013, Cayeux had undergone 21 surgeries but improved to the point that he played in the Zimbabwe Open pro-am – with crutches and a cart. He shot 75, but the pain was so intense that he immediately wondered whether he’d returned too quickly.

Weeks later, he was working out on a rowing machine when his right knee gave out. Doctors later determined that the 5-millimeter-thick steel plate had broken. “At some point,” he said, “you worry if it’s ever going to be fixed for good.”

But Cayeux found inspiration in Ben Hogan’s story. While in the hospital, he read how in 1949 the Hall of Famer was involved in a devastating head-on collision with a bus, how he underwent several operations and survived life-threatening blood clots, and how, a year later, he won the U.S. Open and five of the next seven majors he played.

“I had to believe that I was going to get back, too,” he said. “The moment you never make it is the moment you give up.”

Clockwise from top: Jana, Marc, Jason and Ross Cayeux (Cayeux family)

IT WASN’T UNTIL OCTOBER 2014 that a doctor allowed him to ditch the crutches and begin to walk again without support.

Climbing out of the car for the first time was an adventure. “I put the keys in my pockets and didn’t know what to do with my arms,” he said. “They felt lost.”

Once he gained the confidence to move around, he asked his wife to come to Serengeti, where he would walk nine holes and Jana could trail in a cart. Focused more on staying upright than his score, Marc labored through the round and asked Jana afterward what he had shot. One over par, she replied.

“But I couldn’t walk for four days after that,” he said. “I was broken.”

The throbbing pain still hasn’t subsided, even now, and after a round he pops anti-inflammatories, ices his foot, applies creams and hooks up for electrical stimulation.

“One day,” Jana said, “he asked me: ‘Do I really love golf this much to go through all of this pain?’”

Last May, Cayeux walked his first 18-hole round since the accident, the accomplishment well worth his bones creaking like an old floorboard the next morning. Still, his game hasn’t really suffered. Despite a completely reconstructed lower body, his swing doesn’t appear much different now, though he says he lost 20 yards off the tee and about a club and a half in distance with his irons.

“It’s frustrating,” he said, “because the brain remembers how we used to hit it, but it’s all about trying to get the brain and body to work as one. I have to face the fact that I’m not going to reach those yardages, and one part has to give, either the brain or the body. I’m willing to let the brain push the body.”

In December, in his first pro outing since the crash, with Jana as his caddie for the first time in 13 years, Cayeux made the cut at an IGT Tour Race to Q-School event. Tournament organizers presented him with a cake. On the top, it read “Welcome Back”.

Marc Cayeux discusses his return to golf on the Sunshine Tour.

EVEN MORE EMOTIONAL WAS the start of the Zimbabwe Open on April 14. It was the site of Cayeux’s pro debut 20 years earlier, and now he had returned, a man changed in profound ways.

On the first tee, he warned the starter not to make any dramatic announcements, because he’d lose it, and with trembling hands he guided a 3-wood down the fairway. Four hours later, he signed for a 2-under 70.

Afterward, the emotion of the past five and a half years poured out.

“Where’s that ambulance now?” he said, wiping away tears during an interview. “What are you guys doing to me?”

Cayeux made the cut, remarkably, but with each step on the weekend Jana noticed the pain etched on her husband’s face. The physical toll was immense, but that didn’t diminish the number of well-wishers.

“In the back of everybody’s mind, you always wondered if this was ever really going to happen,” Johnstone said. “We all kept hoping. It’s just bloody wonderful.”

Especially for Cayeux’s family. Ross, now 8, took the accident particularly hard, and he’s been asking his parents recently when daddy will be on TV again. When Marc returned home from the Zimbabwe Open, he brought back a magazine with a story and old picture of he and Woods, from their 2005 pairing.

“Ross was so proud,” Jana said, “and he took it to school and showed all of his friends. It’s a big thing. He knew how Marc was before and what happened. We’re getting past it now. The light is shining a little brighter at the end of the tunnel.”

Yet Cayeux has taken a pragmatic approach to his comeback. With a three-year exemption remaining on the Sunshine Tour, he won’t play full-time until he is ready. He doesn’t want to be just another number in the field, a handout taking up a spot, a feel-good tale without the game to match.

And, yes, he still has to plan his life around another surgery – No. 28, to repair the hernia that was damaged by the seatbelt. The procedure typically requires a six-week layoff, and even a sneeze or a laugh could tear the muscle again. It’s a warning he takes seriously – he’s endured his fair share of setbacks, after all – but he believes that, at long last, his worst days are now behind him.

“In all honesty, at the moment my story is a tragedy,” he said. “It’s only a good story if I make it back. I don’t feel the pressure of letting people down – it’s me chasing the dream that I’ve always wanted. It’ll just be nice if golf is a part of my second chance.”