Compton tightens focus, makes U.S. Open cut

Erik Compton during Friday's second round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Erik Compton during Friday's second round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. ( Getty Images )

Saturday, June 14, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. – Charles DeLucca III swears that one day, we’ll all be sitting in a movie theater watching Erik Compton’s life unfold on the big screen. The tale of an All-American battling back from two heart transplants to make a living on the PGA Tour is the stuff of Hollywood gold.

He gets it, too. The 34-year-old is a hero to those in need of transplants. He’s walking proof that life doesn’t have to diminish after surgery, and his story inspires others to donate.

This week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst, however, Compton’s second major-championship appearance, is purely about golf. Sure he’ll sign autographs and give words of inspiration if he can, but this week in particular, Compton wants to be laser-focused. It’s why his wife and daughter aren’t here this week. It’s why he scheduled the clinic and the hospital visit for next week in Hartford, Conn., during the Travelers Championship.

“If I play well, it will help other people because it is on a big stage,” said Compton, whose second-round 68 put him at even par for the tournament and tied for 14th. “I think many times I’m worried about trying to do both aspects.”

At age 9, Compton was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is inflamed and unable to pump effectively. In February 1992, his father, Peter, drove him to the hospital in the middle of the night to prepare for his first transplant. Watching his son go behind those hospital doors was, as Peter put it mildly, tough.

Compton was the youngest patient to receive a heart transplant at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Even at an early age, Compton never played the role of victim.

With his days of football and baseball behind him, the ultra-competitive Compton turned his focus to a non-contact sport, golf. Six weeks after surgery, Peter was helping his son walk up elevated tees at a course near their Miami home.

By the summer, Compton had won his age division at the Transplant Games in Los Angeles. He would go on to become the nation’s top junior golfer and a standout at Georgia, a two-time All-American who played on the 2001 Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams.

In 2008, Compton was on the range working with DeLucca when a typical south Florida thunderstorm rolled in. Compton was inside, lying on a table as DeLucca massaged out a cramp. DeLucca’s father, Charlie, who taught Compton growing up, came in the room and said that’s no cramp; it’s a heart attack. Charlie, 72, had a quadruple bypass and 17 stents in his own heart. Compton got in his car to drive home but then, as it worsened, turned the car around and drove straight to the hospital, making phone calls to loved ones in case he didn’t make it.

Peter, whose office was close to the hospital, met his son there.

“They were in the ER pounding on him like you see in every bad movie,” Peter said. “They had him on a gurney and were literally running with him to the operating room.”

Charles said no one, other than Compton, expected him to claw his way to the PGA Tour after that second transplant.

“When they did the second heart surgery, he was out of the hospital and four days later he showed up to my driving range with staples in his chest and started hitting sand wedges,” Charles said.

When he’s at home, Compton spends most days on the range at Miami’s Melreese Golf Course, also home to the First Tee Miami, and it isn’t long before 50 kids crowd ’round him to watch. Charles often has to tear Compton away from the kids to get work done.

“He knows what his status brings to kids, and he cares enough to stop and do it,” Charles said.

Compton, playing in his third full season on the PGA Tour, has top-5 finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He qualified for his second U.S. Open (first was a missed cut in 2010 at Pebble Beach) by surviving a five-person playoff at a 36-hole sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. That’s a taxing situation for anyone, let alone someone on his third heart.

At Pinehurst, Compton played three nine-hole practice rounds to keep fresh. The heat might be the week’s toughest condition.

Charles said Compton’s biggest improvement of late is learning how to play aggressive, smart golf rather than simply aggressive golf.

“He’s a born-to-be tour player,” said Charles, who has known Compton since he was a boy.

At age 12, Compton received the heart of a young girl. There was a time, Peter said, when Erik gave a speech at an awards ceremony in which he talked about the number of times people have inquired about his personal life.

“I don’t need to win any girl’s heart,” Compton said. “I’ve already got one.”

With perspective, comes a good sense of humor.

The heart Compton now carries in his chest originally belonged to a man whom Peter called an “Olympic-type” volleyball player. The donor’s family lives outside Columbus, Ohio, near the Memorial Tournament.

“He got the heart of another champion,” Peter said.

We’d expect nothing less.