In My Opinion

Fowler: Erik Compton surges at US Open; more than the guy on his third heart

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJune 14, 2014 

A year ago, at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, I was interviewing golfer Erik Compton in an otherwise deserted room.

Compton has a remarkable story – he has had two successful heart transplants. But it is barely known beyond the golf world, because Compton plays in the sport’s shadows. At 34, he has never won on the PGA Tour and has worked in golf’s minor leagues for much of the past decade.

“If I were to win the U.S. Open with my heart the way it is,” Compton said that day in 2013, “that’s going to be a big story. Subconsciously I’m sometimes harder on myself because I want to do something big – something to take my own story beyond where it is right now.”

Welcome to the last day of the U.S. Open, Erik Compton. Here’s your chance.

Compton shot 67 on Saturday – one of only two subpar rounds the entire day – vaulting up the leader board at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 into a tie for second with Rickie Fowler. Compton would need another great round on Sunday to win, being five strokes behind Martin Kaymer.

But at the least, they will be talking a lot about Compton Sunday on NBC, because how can you not?

Here’s a guy who is playing only the second major championship of his life. Here’s a guy who is ranked No. 187 in the world. Here’s a guy who had his first heart transplant at age 12, when he was the youngest heart transplant patient in the history of Jackson Memorial Hospital in his Miami hometown.

That heart lasted 16 years. Then, in 2008, Compton was fishing by himself when he felt a tingling in his left arm.

Almost sure a heart attack was coming, he rushed to his car and sped toward the hospital, blowing through a toll booth along the way. It was a 20-minute drive, and he was afraid he wouldn’t make it.

His mother, Eli Compton, recalled Saturday: “He called me up and said goodbye. He said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to make it.’ 

But he did make it. He got to the hospital in Miami, survived the heart attack and eventually had another heart transplant. This heart came from a young man who had been visiting Miami and had died in a motorcycle accident. Compton and the man’s family have been in touch since the transplant.

All along, Compton has been playing golf – although for awhile after the second transplant, he thought he might have to give it up.

He was a great junior golfer and an All-American at Georgia. He has two top-five PGA finishes this season. But for much of his adult life, he has had a hard time staying on the PGA Tour. He has been known as “The Guy Who’s On His Third Heart” more than for anything he has done on the golf course.

As Compton told me in that 2013 interview: “Would I rather be some cool surfer guy like Adam Scott – a good-looking guy who won the Masters and now he’s known for that? Sure I would. But that’s not the hand I’ve been dealt.”

Compton would get a whole new deck of cards if he somehow pulled off the improbable and won on Sunday, however. His mother thinks he can.

“I have always thought he would win a major,” she said Saturday. “Why shouldn’t he, with all the work he has done?”

That’s a mother talking, of course. But her son also talked plenty with his game on Saturday.

An eagle on No. 5 jump-started Compton’s round. He was already excited just to make it to the weekend. In his only other major tournament, the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he had missed the cut.

“I’m just really happy to be here,” he said.

After the eagle Saturday he just kept rolling, posting four birdies in a five-hole stretch when almost everyone else was going backwards.

“I knew something special was happening,” Compton said.

Compton does have a sense of humor about his heart issues. When it was brought up Saturday by NBC’s Steve Sands that Compton had missed the cut at the 2010 U.S. Open, the golfer said: “You’ve got to give me a break. I just had a new heart when I was at Pebble Beach.”

Compton has lived with his health problems for a long time. On weeks like this, he tries to keep his own focus purely on golf while taking 5-7 pills every day to ensure that his body doesn’t reject his current heart.

But Father’s Day at the U.S. Open will be special to him in a number of ways. He has a wife and young daughter. Several members of his family will be walking in the gallery as he tries to catch Kaymer over the final 18 holes. He also knows that the cause he champions – organ donation – will get a big boost on national TV.

“I do have moments when I feel like I get emotional for a second,” Compton said Saturday. “But then it’s right back to hitting the ball and trying to get the ball in the hole.”

Compton will need to do a lot of getting the ball in the hole again Sunday. But if he can somehow pull it off, we will witness one of the most unforgettable U.S. Opens ever.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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