By Gary Lemke
Operation Twenty Eight. No, it’s not a codename for an undercover mission, but the lingering effects of a car accident six years ago. Twenty-seven operations and counting since that fateful night, around 8:20pm on 24 September 2010, near Ngundu Halt in Masvingo, Zimbabwe. It was a crash that left Marc Cayeux trapped inside his overturned, burning vehicle, after a policewoman had struck a cow in her Mazda B1800 truck, swerved into the opposite lane and cannoned head-on into the Nissan X.
Though he’s told the story countless times, it doesn’t get any easier.
‘My car landed on its roof and I remember undoing the seatbelt. My friend was in a car in front of me. He came running to my car and was calling my name. That woke me up a bit. They couldn’t get the door open, and I heard him shout that the car was on fire. That’s when I clearly remember saying to myself, “I’m not going to die like this”. From that moment till now, it’s been a case of, “I can get through this”.’
In the mangled other vehicle Manyame district chief superintendent Tsitsi Sadzamare died at the scene, along with a passenger. Cayeux’s right knee moved some 9cm into his femur which was completely shattered during the accident. ‘I still remember watching my left foot just hanging, almost separated from my leg,’ he recalled.
Time stood still. Seriously injured and a body broken from the impact – miraculously he escaped with only minor head injuries – Cayeux lay by the road in excruciating pain. Due to the poor conditions of the road, the nearest ambulance was three hours away. He was stabilised on the scene by a passing nurse and driven in a bakkie towards Harare, where they met the ambulance halfway. He was transported to hospital in Harare, getting there at 2:30am. ‘I remember arriving and seeing my mom and I said, “I’m sorry”. 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.’
There were problems with his medical insurance and the hospital seemed ill-equipped to deal with the extent of Cayeux’s injuries. Finally, he was flown from Harare to Johannesburg, arriving at 2pm on the Sunday, and pumped full of morphine to dull the pain. And that’s when the operations started, seemingly relentless in frequency.
Jana, then his wife of less than a year, stayed with him in ICU and a week after the accident delivered the news: the couple were expecting twins, siblings for Ross, who was welcomed into the world in 2008. That bittersweet joy was tempered when Jana lost one of the twins, although son Jason was later safety delivered.
Years of painful operations, countless skin grafts, physiotherapy and remodelling a body that had shrunk, passed. ‘I’ve been 5 feet 11 inches my whole life. Now I’m 5 feet nine inches. A two-inch difference,’ he said of the procedures that had ‘levelled’ him out again. The rock at his side was Jana and all through the journey Cayeux, now 38, used dry humour to keep going. ‘I’ve got one short leg and one long leg,’ he had told doctors, ‘I can’t walk around in circles on the golf course.’ When doctors took the knife to his left femur, he reacted by saying, ‘When I fly economy class, I’ll have more legroom now.’
Reflecting on what he endured, Cayeux said: ‘There were a lot of doubtful days, and it’s so easy to stay in the hole of being negative. You had to take a joke and rechannel the harshness of it in a funny way, because the good days are so few and far between.’
In October 2014 he was allowed to walk without crutches. ‘I put the car keys in my pockets and didn’t know what to do with my arms. They felt lost,’ he recalls.
Five and a half years after the accident Cayeux made his competitive golfing comeback. In his ‘previous life’ he had won nine times on the Sunshine Tour and one such victory, the 2005 Vodacom Tour Championship – when a final-round 61 had seen him home by six shots – qualified him for the WGC-NEC Invitational. There, he was paired with Tiger Woods in the first round, and he made headlines by playing despite burning his hand during a braai and having to play through the pain.
‘Incredible, absolutely incredible,’ Woods said at the time, after admitting he hadn’t heard of Cayeux before then. ‘The fact he even went out there and played and grounded it out like he did was absolutely fantastic. He had a hard time hanging on to the club, and obviously the pain, but he gutted it out and it was cool to watch. To do what he did was impressive. You look at that hand, it’s not pretty. Obviously he’s in a lot of pain and he dealt with it fine, and he just ground his way around the golf course and did what he could. You could see he was fighting all day, every time he made impact it was going to hurt.’
That determination not to accept what life throws at him makes Cayeux a winner in the broadest sense of the word.
While he was in that Johannesburg hospital for three months after the accident, Cayeux drew inspiration from the remarkable tale of the great Ben Hogan. The American golfer somehow survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus on a dark Texas road in 1949 – and the following year came out and won the US Open.
‘What keeps me going is the Ben Hogan story,’ Cayeux says. ‘I keep looking at that and I tell myself if he was able to do it I’m also going to try and do it. I’d be happy if I can be a tenth of what he was.
‘Even though doctors told me my body’s been through too much and I would never play again I’d tell myself doctors don’t specialise in golf. If you listen to what people say, you will never achieve anything. Your mind is very powerful. I’ve seen people in wheelchairs who have been told they would never walk again, but because of the right mindset were able to defy the odds.
‘If you have a dream in life chase it and you’ve got to go for it at 110%.’
Five and a half years after that accident, this April to be exact, Cayeux teed up in the Zimbabwe Open at Royal Harare. The bare statistics don’t begin to tell the story. For the record, he finished in a tie for 57th position in the 156-man field, shooting rounds of 70, 75, 79 and 72 for an eight-over total of 296. He made bogey on the first hole, but that was the least of his worries.
‘My goal that week was just to make the cut. From what I’ve been through I was just happy to be there. It was five and a half years of trying to get back to this level and it was quite a nerve-racking first tee shot. Luckily I managed to find the middle of the club face, hit my second on the green and then three-putted. I said to myself, “so what, it’s a bogey. We’ve got that out the way and there are 17 more holes to make birdies”. I’m trying to compete again. Golf is a gentleman’s game, and the other players on tour are always helpful and offering encouragement. I just need to get fitter and stronger and work more in the gym and hopefully over the next eight months or so I can walk a lot more rounds of golf. I’m looking forward to it.’
The pain remains constant and after a round Cayeux still requires anti-inflammatories and applies ice to help reduce the swelling in his ankles and feet. He has often been asked by Jana if the sacrifice is all worth it, just to play golf.
‘At the moment my story is a tragedy,’ Cayeux says. ‘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 I’ve always wanted. It’ll just be nice if golf is a part of my second chance.’
Operation 28 is coming up. Hopefully it’s the last, although it will mean he has to sit as still as a church mouse for a few weeks. It’s to fix a stomach hernia caused by the seatbelt in the accident, but the procedure has had to take its place in the queue, behind more urgent intervention. Cayeux will need to be careful not to do anything that can make the condition recur.
While he’s still 38, he will celebrate his 40th birthday in February 2018. By then he will hopefully be a regular sight on the Sunshine Tour again and moving up the rankings. In 2005 he briefly broke into the world’s top 300, but is now nearer 1 800. And for this remarkable fighter and the entire Cayeux family, life will truly begin at 40.