It was just after 10 a.m. on Saturday when the Army veteran amputee sidled up to the two-time heart transplant recipient. A chilly breeze floating through the air, the sun yet to fully warm up the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West, this seemed as good a time as any for a moment of truth between the two.
“I appreciate what you’ve done,” the amputee said. “Hearing your story and stories like yours are inspiring for me. You’re an inspiration for me and an example for me to set my goals.”
“Thank you,” the transplant recipient replied, considering their separate journeys to this point. “I had time to heal. You didn’t.”
If the fourth green during a pro-am doesn’t sound like a fitting place for a meeting of this mutual inspiration society, then you don’t know Chad Pfeifer and Erik Compton.
The 35-year-old Compton underwent his first heart transplant when he was 12 years old; his second came 16 years later. Though his story has been widely told, it never fails to amaze. Compton was on his deathbed – twice. He’s not only lived, he’s thrived, working his way up through the developmental tours to become a top-level player. Last year he finished in a share of second place at the U.S. Open, the best result of his career.
Pfeifer, 33, is seeking a similar endgame. On April 12, 2007, while serving in the Army during the Iraq War, a buried explosive was triggered beneath the ground’s surface. His left leg would soon be amputated. While in a Texas hospital, a friend suggested he take up golf as part of the recovery process. He’d never played before. That was seven years ago. He’s now a professional, with an eye toward someday becoming a PGA Tour regular.
And so when the amputee found himself standing beside the transplant recipient during a brief moment of downtime in the Humana Challenge’s third round, he felt the need to point out their connection.
“I don’t know if it took him by surprise a little bit or he wasn’t expecting it,” Pfeifer recalls. “But I could tell he was thankful that I would say something like that.”
They don’t keep records for things like this, but it’s difficult to believe there have ever been two more inspirational golfers in the same foursome.
When he’s not playing or practicing, Pfeifer’s work often includes encouraging fellow wounded veterans. His words, though, are as much an advertisement for golf as motivational monologue.
“Golf saved my life,” he says. “I was introduced to golf when I was going through therapy. There were a lot of days before I was introduced to golf that most of the guys go through – depression and darker days, when you’re not sure how life is going to be. Golf was the one thing at the time that just kept me looking forward to the next day and kept me positive. I could always look forward to my next time playing. In all honesty, golf itself was my biggest form of therapy.”
Compton similarly understands inspiring others through the game. Two days after that U.S. Open runner-up finish, he found himself at Hartford Hospital, speaking with patients awaiting transplants.
This wasn’t some photo op on the heels of his impressive week. It was just another in a long line of hospital visits that he’s been doing for years. When one woman bemoaned having a window in her room because it was a constant reminder of an outside world she couldn’t experience, the room fell silent. Only Compton knew the right words to say, pointing to that window as encouragement toward returning to full health.
If anyone knows about inspiration, it’s him – but standing on that fourth green, he was the one being inspired.
Just after Pfeifer lipped out for a natural eagle, settling for birdie to quickly move to 2 under for the day, Compton joked about whether he was a tournament competitor rather than just part of the pro-am portion.
“I [was] kind of speechless, because I see him with a huge adversity that he's gone through and it speaks volumes,” says Compton.
“I’ve never been in a group where you have two players who have been through so much,” adds John Rollins, who was Pfeifer’s partner this day. “Just enjoying the game and everything that they have.”
If any golfer ever gets too angry about a wayward tee shot or a missed putt, he can simply look at these respective stories to help alter that attitude.
“My big deal is trying to inspire wounded veterans and people with disabilities,” says Pfeifer, “but if I can impact PGA Tour players to have some perspective and have a little fun with it, that would be great. I would like for my story and Erik’s story to have an impact on these guys, as well.”
One day after they played together, the amputee watched the transplant recipient contend for his first career title. He came close, at one point holding sole possession of the lead, but eventually finishing in 10th place. What he lost in tangible results, though, he might have made up for in inspiration. Not that they keep records for things like this.