PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla.(AP) Erik Compton gave the gallery a polite wave when he reached the 18th green Friday afternoon, so the kid who shuffled alongside him did the same thing.
When Compton shot his arms skyward as his final putt dropped for birdie, the kid did that, too.
And Compton fought through fatigue to walk 18 holes, so the kid somehow managed to do it with him.
A few days ago, Compton had never heard of John Paul George, a 14-year-boy who doctors said should have never been born. John Paul – named for a pope, not The Beatles as is typically assumed – is 4-foot-1 and has a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning the left side of the heart hasn’t formed properly.
But in the second round of the Honda Classic, a two-time heart transplant recipient and a boy who may eventually need one walked side by side, the intertwining of their stories adding yet another element to Compton’s comeback tale.
“The last putt I made, it was just great,” Compton said. “He’ll remember that forever.”
Indeed, it meant plenty to John Paul, who was the standard bearer in Compton’s group at PGA National.
“This is the best day of my life,” he said.
It was a pretty good day for Compton as well.
His 20-foot birdie capped his second straight round of 69, putting him at 2 under and squarely in the mix at the Honda, the second PGA Tour event he’s played since undergoing his second heart transplant last year.
Through 36 holes, Compton was five shots behind leader Y.E. Yang.
Compton finished the final two holes of his first round Friday morning, after darkness suspended play the night before. He carded two pars, then climbed as high as a tie for second at one point in the second round before dropping off a bit.
“Every player’s trying to make the cut. Sometimes it’s more nerve-racking to make the cut than it is when you’re actually in contention,” Compton said. “I felt more comfortable than I have in years.”
With his newborn daughter and family with him, Compton went out in 2-under 33 in the second round, and only had one big problem – hitting his tee ball into the water on the par-3 17th, the end of the famed Bear’s Trap at PGA National, which has a Jack Nicklaus redesign.
So he drilled an 8-iron into a hard wind from 123 yards on the finishing hole, took his putter out of John Paul’s tiny hands, and rolled in a birdie to get one of those lost shots back, plus take a neat boost into the third round.
“I had a triple-bogey and a double-bogey in two days and I’m still under par, still there, and have a chance to play well on the weekend,” Compton said.
And he’s got a new fan.
Derek George, John Paul’s father, approached Compton on the putting green Wednesday and told him his son’s story. When Annette George was pregnant with the boy, doctors advised the parents-to-be that their son would have, at best, minimal chance at survival.
“This is a very rare thing and most kids don’t have it,” Derek George recalls doctors saying. “So it’s better to terminate this and not go through all this hassle. But then my wife said, you know, let’s give John Paul a chance. Let’s give him life.”
So they did. A three-stage series of operations followed, but John Paul hasn’t needed to undergo any procedures in the last seven years. He’s home-schooled, a decision his parents made to minimize the chance of picking up things like colds and flu bugs from other kids, and by the end of Friday’s round, John Paul was exhausted.
When Compton’s group stopped in the 18th fairway for their approach shots, John Paul took the opportunity to sprawl on the grass for a quick rest.
“I walked a lot, that’s for sure,” John Paul said.
Compton could be riding in a cart while playing now to conserve his strength – the PGA Tour has given him permission to do so – but the South Florida native said he wants to walk so transplant patients can see what is possible. John Paul could have ridden as well, and his father even offered to carry him at times Friday.
The boy always declined.
“It’s like me winning the Masters or something like that, to see this kid alive and so happy,” said Derek George, who is writing a book about his son’s battle. “Just look at him laughing and smiling on the golf course. It’s wonderful.”