WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Erik Compton is a walking billboard for organ donation and sheer determination.
He’s also at the top of the Greenbrier Classic leaderboard.
Playing on a late sponsor exemption, the 30-year-old double heart transplant recipient shot a 7-under 63 on Thursday to share the first-round lead with rookie Matt Every in the inaugural tournament.
Compton spent eight straight days doing yard work at home in Miami before he got the call Saturday to play in the tournament. He’s making the most of his late invite, overcoming a slow start with nine birdies on the Old White course.
“You know, some guys miss six, seven cuts in a row and then win,” Compton said. “I know I’m a good player, and I have a lot of the adversity in front of me with the game and health. But I always feel like if I stick in there and keep trying, something eventually good is going to happen.”
George McNeill, Pat Perez and Jeff Overton opened with 64s.
Nearly all of the field hadn’t played the course before this week, but it wasn’t a detriment – 24 players were at 4 under or better.
While more than half of the field is in jeopardy of missing the FedEx Cup playoffs and others are trying to secure spots in next month’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Compton is taking it week by week, looking to solidify a future either on the PGA Tour or the Nationwide circuit.
A few years ago, it wasn’t looking so bright.
Compton was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy at age 9. The disease inflames the heart and leaves it unable to pump as hard as it needs to. His first transplant came three years later and another occurred in 2008.
He didn’t think he’d play golf again and even sold his equipment after the second transplant. But his health improved quickly and he returned to the game within weeks.
This season he’s made four cuts in seven starts.
In the past he might have denied that his double transplants would have been a bigger deal than shooting a low score, but not now.
“It affects so many people,” Compton said.
Compton’s stamina is good, though he admits it may not be up to the level of other players. That’s in part due to the hilly terrain and expansive layout of some courses.
Fortunately for him, Old White is relatively flat.
“My health is great. I keep a good eye on it,” Compton said. “I’m almost like a doctor now myself because I’ve been through so much and being able to manage medications and take it on the road.”
Good friend Victor Billskoog, who’s carrying Compton’s bag this week for the first time, is hoping to attend the PGA Tour’s qualifying school and uses Compton as an inspiration.
“He has such a great story coming from the depths that he came from,” Billskoog said. “When I get down on myself and think about how hard I’m having it, I think about Erik and his remarkable story.”
An accurate driver, Compton showed a good all-around game Thursday, reaching 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation. He needed just 26 putts.
Things didn’t start out so good.
Compton bogeyed two of the first three holes, then rattled off seven birdies over a nine-hole stretch. He also birdied the par-4 14th and his chip from behind the green to the par-5 17th hit the flag, leaving him with another short birdie.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the opportunity,” Compton said. “It’s just the first round. I’ve played this sport long enough to know that (Friday) I tee off at 2 o’clock and might be seven back. So I’m just trying to be patient.”
Compton’s previous best round this year was 4-under 67 in February at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. His best finish was a tie for 30th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
He qualified for the U.S. Open in June after a 36-hole sectional that included a playoff. He shot 77-81 in the Open and missed the cut.
After missing the cut two weeks ago at the Reno-Tahoe Open, Compton went back to his new home for some serious yard work, planting palm, oak and Italian Cypress trees and redoing the lawn.
“I’ve done flowers before, but nothing will grow in 150-degree weather in Miami,” Compton said.
After more than a week of getting his hands dirty, he got the call to play golf again – and has come to appreciate the beauty of Old White, which has undergone some tweaking and considerable floral touch ups in preparation for the tournament.
“This place is immaculate,” Compton said. “That why it’s so neat to see the landscaping here. As a golfer, you like to have your yard look nice.”
Every, starting on the back nine, eagled the par-5 12th and had three straight birdies to make the turn at 6 under. He added a birdie at the par-4 sixth hole.
The 26-year-old Every’s best finish is eighth at the Phoenix Open in late February. He’s played in just 11 tournaments in the last five months after breaking his left pinky finger.
“My game’s coming around,” said Every, recently arrested in Iowa and charged with possession of a controlled substance. He has denied possessing marijuana.
Overton, seeking his fifth top-10 finish this season, had the chance to tie for the lead but made bogey on the par-3 18th after his tee shot flew the green.
Brendon de Jonge, Charles Howell III, Aron Price, Matt Bettencourt and John Rollins shot 65s. Jim Furyk, who’s fifth in the FedExCup points standings and can jump past Ernie Els into the top spot with a second place or better finish, had a 68.
Carl Pettersson, winner of the Canadian Open last week, had a 71.
Afternoon play was stopped for 1 hour, 33 minutes due to storms.