Erik Compton left a series of unusual messages on his friends' cell phones on May 20, 2008. He lay in his hospital bed, about to be hooked up to a machine that would breathe for him while another machine cleaved open his rib cage to clear the way for doctors to orchestrate, if all went well, his third shot at life.
"Kelly, it's Erik," Compton said on one voice mail. "Uh, listen. I'm going in for surgery tonight, so when you get this message in the morning I'll have a new heart in me, bro. Just wanted to tell you I love you, man, and say hi to your family and everybody, and I'll talk to you when I wake up, all right? Later." Click.
Dr. Si Pham performed the transplant at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, and complications made it unusually long — nearly 12 hours. When Compton awoke much later, he had more lines coming out of him than a marionette. He had hallucinations. He couldn't feel one of his legs.
And yet Compton not only lived, but remarkably, his golf game has blossomed in the ensuing three years. He made two cuts on Tour in 2009. He played in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. After Monday-qualifying for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera earlier this year, he shot a closing 64 to tie for 25th. And on June 26, Compton won his first Nationwide Tour event — the Mexico Open — ensuring that he'll make enough money on that circuit in 2011 to join the PGA Tour full-time next year.
Says Dr. Pham, "It's unheard of for a patient to be playing sports on a national level like this."
Compton, 31, seems to credit his improved game, at least in part, to his brushes with death. "It's come easier to me now with my second transplant," he says. "As a young guy I tried so hard. I'm not grinding like that anymore. There's an I-don't-give-a-sh-- factor. I've been kicked in the head and had so many issues, it's just exciting to be alive. It's been like a rebirth for me."
For the two-time transplant recipient and 2012 PGA Tour rookie, the rebirth was a painful one. It started nearly 20 years ago, when he was a boy with a bad heart who literally refused to die.
EVERY DAY at 10 a.m., Compton takes 15 pills that kindly tell his body not to kill his heart. He takes the same 15 pills at 10 p.m., because Compton's heart is pre-owned, and the rules of cardiac transplantation are as inflexible as the Rules of Golf. A foreign object is a foreign object.
His daily drug regimen is nothing new. Compton was 12 when he got his first transplant in 1992, and 28 when he got his second, in 2008. You don't want to jump into weighty matters of life and death over dinner — he's dining at a four-top with his caddie Phil Smith (an EMT in his spare time) and Canadian Tour pal Kelly Murray — but small talk seems especially small with Compton. Who has the time? He's three years into his second donor heart. He's a husband, to Barbara Casco, whom he married in 2008, and a father, to daughter Petra. He's still young. What if he needs another transplant? Has anyone had three?
"I don't really look at that stuff, because s--t, you'll make yourself sick with all that," Compton says. "What are the chances of a guy being ranked 230th? What are the chances of a guy being ranked 230th with one transplant? What about two transplants? My success hasn't been about avoiding a question like that. It's more about not going there. It's like saying, 'When is the end of your life?' Nobody can predict that."
On second thought, some small talk might have been nice. Moments before his second transplant, Compton lightened the mood with jokes in the operating room, because to obsess over the biological act of living is to fail to experience life.
"How would you like living," says Charlie DeLucca, Compton's first swing coach, himself a victim of multiple heart attacks, "knowing that in eight or nine years you've got to go through this again — maybe, if you're lucky?"
Compton first met Murray, a Moe Norman disciple, on a driving range in Canada, where Compton asked for an anti-hook tip. Says Murray, "I had him do this Moe Norman drill where you stand on your right foot only and swing really hard and hit it as high as you can. It requires coordination and commitment, because it's a scary motion. It takes practice. Erik ripped it first try. He goes, 'Oh, I get it.' "
Compton was always physically gifted. As a child growing up in Miami, he played shortstop and pitcher in baseball, quarterback in football, and ranked first in presidential fitness tests. But at age 9, he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a disease that inflames the heart muscle, limiting its ability to pump blood. He began to vomit and see spots by age 11 and was put on a list to receive a new heart. Just after midnight in late February 1992, a drunk driver killed a 15-year-old girl. Peter Compton woke his 12-year-old son for the trip to Jackson Memorial.
After the transplant surgery, with contact sports off the table, Compton gravitated to golf and to DeLucca, the director of golf at International Links/Melreese C.C. in Miami. "He always thought he was better than everybody," DeLucca says with a laugh.
Erik's anti-rejection pills caused him to gain weight. DeLucca let him take a pull cart in club competition because the boy wasn't strong enough to carry his own bag. Peter Compton recalls helping pudgy Erik make his way up to elevated tees.
Compton eventually shed the weight and soon climbed the junior rankings, then went on to lead Georgia to two SEC titles and to make the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team.
For all of Compton's amateur accolades, though, he struggled as a pro. He got into a four-man playoff at a 2004 Nationwide tournament but lost on the first extra hole. He won three times on the Canadian tour, and at the 2005 Hassan II Golf Trophy in Morocco, making enough money to buy his own place, but more mediocrity followed. Touring golf was a grind, and while Compton made cuts, he wore down on the weekends. Even now, he isn't exactly sure why his game sharpened in 2011, but he credits hard-won perspective.
"Everything is a miracle, man," he says.