At age 35 and seven years into his third heart, Erik Compton may be the PGA Tour’s most unlikely success story. Although he has yet to add a Tour win to his résumé, his closest call came at last year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Compton was the tournament’s darling, drawing a roar from the crowd when he executed a clutch up-and-down on the 18th hole to tie for second alongside Rickie Fowler, eight strokes behind runaway winner Martin Kaymer. “When you’re playing well, it seems so easy,” Compton says. “When you’re playing badly, the game seems impossible.” It’s one of the many lessons—in life, in golf—that the game’s ultimate survivor brings with him this month to Chambers Bay.
Prove it to yourself, not to anyone else.
All of us on Tour are very hard on ourselves. If you have a great week and then a bad week, you think about your bad week. But every player out here knows he’s capable of great things. It’s just a matter of doing it. I haven’t played in a lot of majors, but once you get into that environment and play well, you’re like, “Holy moly, I actually have a chance to have a great finish.” When you perform like I did at Pinehurst, it’s something that’s always a part of you.
Choose a plan–and stick to it.
On regular PGA Tour events, the setups often allow you to be aggressive, but in the major championships you have to think your way around the course. Par is your friend. My coach Charlie DeLuca comes out for the majors, and we set up a game plan and don’t vary from it. At last year’s British Open, I varied from the plan when I saw the scores changing so much. I saw what Rory was doing, and I was like, “I have to be more aggressive,” and it backfired. Sometimes you have to do that, but most of the time at a major, par is good. It’s important to play your own game.
Great things can come from modest goals.
My goals are different from other players’ goals. I don’t say, “I want to win a tournament” or “I’m shooting for the Ryder Cup.” My goal is simple: Get the ball in the fairway. On the range at an event, all I think is, “How can I get the driver in play and execute a shot to the green?” It’s like Christmas: “I want this for Christmas, I want that for Christmas.” Well, good behavior is what gets you those presents. You’ve got to behave. Be disciplined. It starts with hitting fairways and greens. You won’t win unless you do that.
Never say die.
I don’t quit. Mentally, I’m very tough. I know what to do, what not to do. Had I not gone through my health issues, I wouldn’t be as sharp. The up-and-down I made [at Pinehurst, at the 72nd hole] is an example of never giving up. You have to make the best of it. I’ve been on my back twice, thinking I’d never leave the house—and I finished second at the U.S. Open. You can’t ever give up.
Learn to let go.
You can’t care so much. It’s a long season, and you know you’ll play well at some point. You’ve got to let go if you want to hit good shots. Martin Kaymer summed it up: “I’m going to be prepared to play, but the question is whether I’m going to be able to execute the shots.” That was pretty smart. Some people have a hard time letting go. You can’t be too hard on yourself.
Feel the love.
At Pinehurst last year, the crowd really rallied around me. I felt the love. I’ve never had that feeling on the course, being supported, people screaming my name. And I showed the world, and myself, that I can play well under extreme pressure, on a difficult, championship course.
I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened, except for the families of the donors who made my life possible. I wish they still had their loved ones. But I’ve had a lot of good happen to me. A lot of people have had even worse breaks than me. I’m very happy for every day I have.
We had a big party on the first-year anniversay of one of my transplants, and a singer named Hal Fraser sang a song, called “Believe in Yourself.” It’s from the The Wiz. It’s a great song about believing—in yourself, in your heart. That was inspiring. I’ve had so many people believe in me, whether it was at a long-drive contest, a small tournament, or a charity event. That support was so important. On the course, I’ve had instances where I felt it was my time—for that putt, for that moment. If I had to flip a coin, I feel that 99 percent of the time it would flip in my direction. It’s fate.
What do I know for sure? That tomorrow will be here, whether I’m here or not. I’m a hundred percent sure that I’m a lucky person. And I’m a hundred percent sure I’m going fishing when I get home after each tournament.