Compton earns qualifier spot at Riviera

Erik Compton during the first round of PGA Tour Q-School.

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - Peter Compton imparted some simple, yet sage advice to his son, Erik, that the son still leans on at times: “Look,” Peter would explain to Erik, “you can’t win the lotto unless you buy a lotto ticket.”

And so it was that Erik Compton, the 31-year-old, two-time heart transplant recipient with nothing but limited status on any pro tour this season, boarded a jet for Los Angeles last Saturday, wondering if he wasn’t simply tossing money into the sky. Rusty as he was competitively and feeling the effects of a cold he’d been battling for nearly three weeks, he crossed coasts from Miami to attempt to secure one of only four spots in Monday qualifying for the Northern Trust Open.

With a deep qualifying field that boasted 71 players with PGA or Nationwide Tour status, his quest wasn’t far away from scratching a proverbial lottery ticket.

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Erik Compton

“It’s not like I’m a rich guy,” said Compton, who hadn’t played a competitive round since tying for 100th at PGA Tour Qualifying School in December. “So it is a gamble to be out here. But the reward is huge. So you’ve got to take that chance.”

He did. He shot 66 on Monday on the Eisenhower Course at Industry Hills, earning one of four spots into the Northern Trust. His initial reward? Thursday morning he’ll be teeing it up at storied Riviera Country Club, where pros are vying for a $6.5 million purse.

“In the end,” said Compton, reflecting on his Monday qualifying experience, “it’s always still a number. Whether you’re playing against Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods or whoever ... you’ve just got to shoot a number.”

The biggest number in Compton’s life? Three. That’s how many hearts he has required to pump blood throughout his diminutive 5-foot-8-inch frame. Diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy before his 10th birthday, he was 12 when he had his first transplant. He’d go on to a successful junior golf career and would earn a scholarship to Georgia, where he played alongside the likes of Bubba Watson. Late in 2007, he was enjoying his other passion, fishing, when his arm started to go numb. His transplanted heart was failing him, and he barely made it to the hospital, frantically driving himself, not knowing if he'd make it there alive. Shortly thereafter, he received a second heart transplant; he figured his golf career was finished.

Given his perseverence and sheer grit, it wasn’t. There still are times when he wonders whether this game he loves so much is worth all the obstacles he must overcome to play it. His story is one that’s been well-chronicled, especially when he stood beneath the bright spotlight of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last summer. Wednesday morning at the Northern Trust, when Erik was brought into the media center, only three print reporters sat scattered among dozens of vacant seats. But Compton’s story never lacks for inspiration, and is not one that ever should be taken for granted.

“I find it amazing that he’s even able to play the game, you know, from what he’s gone through over the course of his life,” said Steve Stricker, ranked No. 8 in the world, who played a practice round with Compton on Tuesday. “He’s got a great attitude, first of all. I think what makes him so special is that he’s got a great attitude about it. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen ... he just takes it day by day.”

Since failing to earn a Tour card or full Nationwide card in December, Compton has been home in South Florida, spending a little time on the boat, playing rounds at Doral, and watching a considerable amount of golf on television. He watched one Nationwide Tour contemporary, Jhonattan Vegas, explode onto the world scene at Bob Hope, and saw his old college teammate, Watson, win in San Diego.

“I sent him (Watson) a text and said ‘Congratulations, hopefully I’ll see you soon.’ It obviously gives me a sense that if I’m healthy, I’m close,” Compton said. “When you see players like Jhonattan Vegas, players you’ve played with, and they break through, you’re really happy for them. You are. You know how hard it is to win, and it changes your life.

“And you hope that one day that’s going to happen for yourself.”

Compton has been working toward that day, that dream, by working out this offseason. He rejoined his old trainer, Joe Nyra, in a converted warehouse that he affectionately calls “a Rocky Balboa gym” near his parents’ home. He’s been lifting weights to get stronger, doing cardio, adding 10 pounds to his frame and returning 10 mph to his swing. By getting back in the neighborhood of 115 mph, some lost yardage has returned off the tee. (“I’m retraining myself to just go out there and rip it,” he said. “In practice rounds, it’s good to see I’m not one of the shorter guys in the group.”)

Mostly, Compton just takes things day to day. With a 2-year-old daughter at home, he is prone to colds, and he recently battled an ear infection. Wednesday in L.A., he was starting on yet another new antibiotic, trying to boost his strength and stamina.

Truthfully, taking things day by day is really all Erik Compton has ever done. Ask him about the season ahead, and you won’t hear him dish out long-range plans. He might try to Monday qualify in Mexico (Mayakoba Classic) if he can get out of L.A. in time this Sunday, and will try Monday qualifying near home at Honda, as well. Chi Chi Rodriguez has taken an interest in Compton, talking with him several times a week. (“He’s so positive – he’s helped me a lot.”) Next month’s Puerto Rico Open has a sponsor exemption awaiting Compton.

“How can I say no to a man with two hearts?” said Sidney Wolf, tournament director in Puerto Rico, who knows Compton pretty well. “I want to see him play well and contend. What a great story.”

This week Compton is here at Riviera teeing it up against the strongest field on Tour to date this season. In four days’ time, he’ll hope to catch lightning in a bottle. Like his old pal Bubba. Or like Jhonattan Vegas. A year ago Compton had seven PGA Tour starts and made five cuts. Hey, success at Riviera could even arrive in the form of a top 10, which would then advance him into the field in Mexico. Anything to build momentum on his journey.

“Most people will see me here this week and assume I got an exemption, but I qualified,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who is right there, but I’m not on the Tour, you know? Every now and then, I’m hopping in. One of these times, I think I’ll either get through Q-School or I’ll do well on the Nationwide Tour and win, and I’ll have more opportunities.

“Hey, something great might happen this week. You’ve got to believe that. You have to.”

Because you can’t win the lotto unless you buy a lotto ticket.

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