Erik Compton is among the elite on the PGA Tour this week at the AT&T National, even though he has been in a league of his own for about as long as he’s been playing golf.
Compton is in the same group with Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan for the first two days at Aronimink. One of them is a former U.S. Open champion who rose as high as No. 2 in the world. Another played in the Ryder Cup and won a World Golf Championship last year.
2011 AT&T NATIONAL
AT&T National host venue Aronimink was the second most difficult non-major course on the 2010 PGA Tour, with a scoring average 1.21 strokes over par. Only Honda Classic host PGA National was tougher.
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And the third?
“Everybody knows I’m the guy with two hearts,” Compton said.
It’s a story that has been told for the last three years, ever since the 31-year-old Compton again defied logic, if not death, by getting a second heart transplant and returning five months later to get through the first stage of Q-School.
And it keeps getting more amazing.
Compton shot a 65 on Sunday in the final round of the Mexican Open and won the Nationwide Tour event, moving him up to No. 2 on the money list and all but assuring he will finish among the top 25 this year and earn his card on the PGA Tour.
His identity won’t change. He will always be the guy who after his second transplant said, “I’ve been dead. Twice.”
Compton wouldn’t have it any other way. The attention he receives whenever he plays allows him to spread the word on organ transplants, such as the heart he received when he was 12, and the second heart he was given on May 20, 2008.
“The doctors are shocked and people in the transplant world are shocked,” Compton said. “I’m shocked because I always said I would be on tour and play, but now it’s a reality. My dream is finally coming true, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. I have a new life and I have a bright future, and it’s just … I mean, it’s just crazy. I can’t even explain it.”
It’s even harder to fathom for those who have seen this story unfold.
Charlie DeLucca, head of the Dade Amateur Golf Association in Miami, still remembers when Compton showed up to play and his parents asked if he could take a pull cart. DeLucca was skeptical, unaware that the boy had been diagnosed at age 9 with cardiomyopathy, an enlarging of the heart that hinders its ability to pump blood.
The first transplant occurred a few years later, and DeLucca figured he’d never see him again.
Compton, as he has done his entire life, proved otherwise.
“He’s not even supposed to be here,” DeLucca said. “He just never lost his determination.”
DeLucca had his eyes glued to the Internet on Sunday as he tried to watch the scores being posted from the Mexico Open. There were a few glitches, and some uncertainty, until it was final. Compton was a winner, and on his way to the PGA Tour.
“The second greatest thing is that he won,” DeLucca said. “The first great thing is he’s alive. And now, we’re really going to see what he’s going to do. He’s going to play on the biggest stage. He can play. It’s not luck. He’s been a winner all his life.”
What happens this week is irrelevant.
Some players win for the first time on the PGA Tour and take the next week off to recover. Compton won in Mexico and flew to Philadelphia, but not before losing his wallet in the airport, leaving him no cash to get bottled water or a sandwich for the flight.
This will be his fifth straight week playing golf, and he has posted 12 of his last 16 rounds in the 60s. In four PGA Tour starts this year, he has made the cut every time.
The bigger picture is next year, when he gets a full year on the PGA Tour, allowing him to be slightly more selective and plan for more rest that he needs to accommodate a heart that has been in his body for only three years.
“I’m very comfortable with what I’ve been through and who I am as an individual, and I know that I’m going to get attention because of having the two heart transplants,” he said. “I’m not so much of a sideshow freak anymore. I’ve proved that I can play on tour, so that does give a lot more confidence.”
Even so, Compton still has a hard time believing everything that transpired.
After the first transplant, he became the top-ranked junior in America and went to Georgia, eventually playing in the Walker Cup against a team that featured Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell. As a pro, he won tournaments in Canada and on the Hooters Tour, but he never made it to the big leagues. He had a heart attack in October 2007 and somehow drove himself to the hospital, narrowly avoiding death.
Doctors found a donor nearly 20 months later, and he went through a 14-hour operation. Everyone figured that was the end of his competitive golf, except for Compton.
“I made a call four months after my transplant to just about everybody in the country in golf and said that I was going to make a comeback, and there were very few people that were willing to take a chance on me,” he said.
He had support of his parents and his wife, whom he met in the hospital. Barbara was pregnant with a girl, Petra, as Compton was getting his second heart transplant. And there was Michael Hanzman, recently appointed a judge in Florida, who backed him financially and asked for nothing in return.
“I get chills thinking about it,” he said.
Compton returns to Florida next week for an annual procedure to test the strength of his heart. He will take more breaks this year because he can, although it would help to stay as high on the Nationwide Tour money list to help his position in the big leagues next year.
But he still wants to play on the PGA Tour when he can get a sponsor’s exemption.
Membership is nice. Compton wants to win. That’s the next step.
Someone suggested that his story was worthy of a movie and asked Compton who should play the leading role. His friends have always said he looks like Paul Giamatti, and Compton said he saw the actor in the airport on his way to Mexico.
“I don’t think there will be a movie,” Compton said. “I think movies … you have to have something that’s maybe a little bit more unrealistic. Maybe if they make a fictional story and have me winning three U.S. Opens or something.”