Compton ready to play first major — on third heart

Erik Compton made it into the U.S. Open field after surviving a three-way playoff — and two heart transplants.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Erik Compton's presence at the 110th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach this week is a three-for-two story: He survived a three-man playoff for the last two spots at a qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.

Compton's life is a two-for-three story: He got his second heart transplant in 2008, meaning he is, at age 30, on the third heart of his life.

"I'm a dreamer," Compton said in a press conference Monday that was also attended by his wife, Barbara, and his parents. "So I have dreamed that I could get another heart and I could come back out and play."

If the events of the last six months have left you weary and longing for someone to cheer for, Compton is your man. This will be his first Open, his first major, his first time playing hallowed Pebble Beach, and he broke down upon surviving the grueling, 39-hole gantlet last week.

He talked of skipping the qualifier, which was played the day after he ran out of gas and carded an 82 in the final round of the Memorial. Perhaps, he thought, he ought to just go home to Miami and rest.

But if anybody appreciates the urgency of now, it is Compton, who likes to say each round has the power to atone for the one that preceded it.

And so he woke up at 4 a.m. last Monday, trudged to the course and, surprisingly, shot 69-66. After three-putting the last hole of regulation to fall into the playoff, Compton made a 10-footer to stay alive on the second extra hole before securing his golden ticket with a par one hole later.

"I've had a lot of luck along the way," Compton said. "I mean, I'm not the one performing the heart operation and putting it inside my chest."

Diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy at 9, Compton was vomiting and seeing spots by age 11, desperate for a transplant. The call came Feb. 26, 1992, just after midnight — a drunk driver had killed a 15-year-old girl.

"Erik, wake up. Now's the time," his father, Peter, said.

The family got a police escort to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Compton got the second heart of his young life. He took 14 pills a day to fight tissue-rejection, and took up golf as part of his rehabilitation. It came naturally to the all-sport athlete with uncanny hand-eye coordination.

Compton became a Miami schoolboy legend, a star on the American Junior Golf Association, and posted a 1-1-1 record on the U.S. Walker Cup team. After playing for the University of Georgia, he turned pro in 2001.

But golf in all its Darwinian ruthlessness doesn't much care about all-amateur accolades, or a good back-story. Compton knocked around mini-tours, and briefly the Nationwide tour. He accepted a few sponsor's invites into PGA events, often making the cut when he got the chance to play.

He knew that his donor heart wouldn't last forever, and sure enough he was driving in late 2007 when he suffered a heart attack. He managed to get himself to the emergency room, even calling ahead to announce his impending arrival. There he was stabilized for a familiar waiting game.

This is the point where a man of lesser faith and fortitude might have crumbled amid the fog of uncertainty and the numbing of prescription drugs and daytime television. But Compton has said the six-month wait was "probably the strongest I've ever been mentally." He knew that death was a distinct possibility, and accepted it. He was, he said, "in the zone."

Then came another miracle, another fatality on the roads, this time a hit-and-run that killed a University of Dayton volleyball player named Isaac Klosterman. On May 20, 2008, Compton was opened up again, rebooted again, put back together with staples again. The operation lasted 14 hours.

No one knows how these things will turn out; what will the body do with this new, foreign savior? Reject it? Accept it? As Tiger Woods was winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on his last leg, Compton wondered if he'd just gotten his last shot at life, to say nothing of golf.

"When I was laying there in the ICU, after the transplant, I pretty much had come to grips that I wasn't ever going to play golf again," he said. "I sold all my golf equipment. I didn't have any status anywhere."

Peter Compton read his son golf magazines, but no one knew if the 5-8, 150-pound Erik would ever be the same guy who won twice and led the 2004 money list on the Canadian Tour, the guy who won the 2005 Hassan II Golf Trophy in Morocco. No one knew if he would even live.

As it turned out, the second donor heart was a perfect match. He got stronger, faster, than anyone anticipated, and conceived a child, 14-month-old Petra, with his wife, Barbara. He got into the 2009 Memorial as a sponsor's exemption, and in Columbus he met Klosterman's family.

"They have been following closely what's going on this week and when I was at Muirfield," Compton said. "They're a very special, tight family and it's been a blessing to have — for them to make the decision to donate their son's organs to not only save my life, but to save others."

On Thursday, Compton will join Jason Allred and amateur Russell Henley on the 10th tee. They're off at 2:31 p.m., the second-to-last time. Any time is fine with the most unlikely qualifier at Pebble Beach, the guy who survived a hell of a lot more than six three-putts in Columbus.

Compton played a practice round with Ben Crane and Nick Watney on Monday. Jim McLean, the Miami-based instructor who has taught Compton, tagged along, as did Watney's coach, Butch Harmon. There was plenty of laughter, but also plenty of careful plotting and planning.

Now that he's here, Compton figures he may as well try to win.

 

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