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Erik Compton — on his third heart — has shown more mettle than anyone in the game

Erik Compton
Angus Murray
UNCHARTED WATERS: An avid fisherman, Compton hopes to reel in a win in his first full year on Tour.
Exhibit A: The average life span of a donor heart is 10 years. Compton's first new heart lasted 16 years. Then, on October 3, 2007, he suffered a heart attack after fishing. He drove himself to the hospital and collapsed in the emergency room, where doctors put a stent in his chest, working so feverishly that they didn't bother to close the curtain. "It was like watching a horror show," Peter Compton told the St. Petersburg Times. Thus began a nearly eight-month wait for a second transplant, during which time Compton said he was "the strongest I've ever been mentally" and "in the zone."

A lot happened during that strange limbo. He met Barbara, a beauty from Buenos Aires. They soon conceived a child, which was surprising given the fact that Compton didn't know if he could have kids after taking countless bottles of potentially damaging immunosuppressants. (They married in August 2008.)

During this time, in March, Compton went to the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, where he had worked with teaching pro Jim McLean. Compton had recently been fitted with a pacemaker.

"I had droopy eyes and weighed about 125 pounds," says Compton, who, at 5'8", normally weighs 150 pounds. "I was in the locker room, but I was hiding behind a post because I felt maybe I shouldn't be there. I wanted to see friends. I didn't know if I was going to see them again."

Having followed Compton's career, Phil Mickelson sidled over to talk. To this day, Compton wonders what the guys thought, seeing him like that. Says Mickelson, "I've heard Johnny Miller and Chip Beck say a quote that I really like, which is that it's not what you accomplish in life, it's what you overcome. Erik's accomplishments are incredible given what he's overcome."

The 12-hour transplant operation that May was another miracle for Compton. It became possible when Isaac Klosterman, a former volleyball player at the University of Dayton, died in a hit-and-run while riding his motorcycle in Florida. Once again, one family's tragedy was another's miracle.

Dr. Pham has done about 30 heart transplants a year since 1990, and they're never a sure thing. You can do an echocardiogram to make certain a heart is worthy of donation, but a surgeon won't know for sure until he cradles the muscle in his hands. He'll want to take a good look and squeeze the arteries to make sure they don't feel calcified. Getting a heart out of the donor and into the operating room isn't simple, either. "There's a lot of timing involved," says Dr. Mark Drazner, the medical director of the Cardiac Transplant Program at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. "You can't open up the patient and take out his heart until you know the new one is a go. And then it's a four-to-six-hour operation."

While recovering from the surgery, Compton discarded his golf gear, figuring he'd never play again. But he began to watch events on TV, imagining his head on the winner's body. Less than six months later, using a golf cart, he tied for 60th at the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Disney World — an aptly named forum for a man playing with his third heart.

Compton went back to walking courses, but he'll always have unique challenges related to his health and stamina. When he's too weak to practice, he can be quite short off the tee upon returning. This past June, he nearly left the Mexico Open before it even started. A hurricane was bearing down on the host town of León, and Compton has enough trouble maintaining his strength for 72 holes without weather-related suspensions. He'd also gained a sponsor's invitation to the following week's AT&T National on the PGA Tour, and he considered going home to prepare for the more lucrative event.

Self-preservation is understandably important for Compton, but so is playing golf for a living. A day after he shot a final-round 82 at the 2010 Memorial, he woke up at 4 a.m. for a U.S. Open sectional. He shot 69-66, then survived a three-hole playoff, breaking down upon realizing he was in. "He has to be like that," DeLucca says. "He doesn't have time for foolishness. He has to do well now."

The hurricane in Mexico halted play Thursday and Saturday, forcing Compton to play 27 holes Sunday. He made a tough two-putt after a rain delay, and hit his approach inside three feet on the next hole, the 12th. "That's when I thought I had a chance to do something special," Compton says. He made eight birdies for a come-from-behind 65 to win by two shots. "It was meant to be," says Barbara, who followed the action on the Internet. "It's almost beyond belief," McLean says.

"People around me were emotional," Compton says, "but I'll be more emotional when I win on the PGA Tour. I just want to build on this. Charlie [DeLucca] was very happy. He's had a lot of heart issues himself. We've been in the hospital together having procedures done next to each other."

When he returned from Mexico, Compton went to the AT&T National, where players who knew his story gave him a hero's welcome. He saw ex-Florida Gator Camilo Villegas, a college rival.

"I'm finally out here with you guys," Compton said.

"It's about time," said a smiling Villegas.

Compton missed the cut, chalking it up to being tired from playing five straight weeks. But back in Miami for a scheduled biopsy, Compton learned that his body was again trying to reject his heart.

"You go from tremendous highs to the lowest lows," says Eli Compton, Erik's mother.

Adds Erik, "I probably was in rejection when I was winning."

It was a scary time, but after upping the dosage of his immunosuppressants, Compton came out of rejection and went back to work.

Eli Compton and Lillian Klosterman, the mother of donor Isaac, keep in touch via Facebook. Together they've seen almost every side of organ donation. A third transplant is not impossible for Erik. "After a third transplant I could not guarantee he would go back to golf," says Dr. Pham, who has become a family friend.

The future could get increasingly complicated. Requisite medications often lead to other health problems, and patients who receive blood transfusions develop antibodies that can act in opposition to the antigens of a potential donor.

These things would keep Compton up at night, if he let them. To truly live, he must avoid thinking about whether he'll live. He must ponder things like the 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii, where he'll likely kick off next season. He's offered to give Pham golf lessons, but the doctor doesn't play. Instead, they're planning a fishing trip. Perhaps they'll talk about tying flies, or maybe tell jokes — anything to forget, for a few moments, the collision of random and man-made miracles it took to be there, throwing a line in the water.

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