PINEHURST, N.C. – Erik Compton was nervous and frightened. He was 12 years old and lying in a hospital bed, the result of a faulty heart that had left him hooked up to scary-looking machines while surrounded by a swirling sea of doctors and nurses, each prepping him for transplant surgery.
His parents were nervous and frightened, too. They couldn’t show it, though, not in front of their son. Peter and Eli Compton needed to put up a brave front. They needed to encourage their youngest son. They needed to tell him that everything would be OK.
No, they needed to tell him that everything would be better than OK.
“We just said once you get a new heart, you’re going to be a champion,” his mother remembers. “You’re going to get the heart of a champion.”
Twenty-two years ago, Eli Compton (her first name is pronounced Ellie) wasn’t trying to foreshadow the 114th U.S. Open Championship. In fact, her son loved baseball more than golf back then. Following the surgery, he sat in a wheelchair, looked into a camera and offered the same proclamation that he’d first made four years earlier: “I’m going to be a Major League baseball player.”
His career on the baseball diamond – not to mention the football field and basketball court, each the product of all that encouragement from his parents – stalled, but his pursuit of golf soared. He became a top-ranked junior player, competed for the University of Georgia and turned professional.
If that sounds like a Hollywood movie, what came next was the rare sequel that might have outshined the original.
In 2008, at age 28, Compton drove himself to the hospital, fearing the worst. Once again, the swirl of doctors and nurses hooked him up to machines. Once again, he was given a new heart.
It didn’t take long for him to return to professional golf - first on the developmental Nationwide Tour, then graduating to the PGA Tour. He’s yet to win on the world’s most elite circuit, but if this story needed a Hollywood ending, perhaps it’s coming this week.
Entering the final round at Pinehurst No. 2, Compton is tied for second place, just five strokes behind leader Martin Kaymer and with a major championship victory well within striking distance.
The symbolism of a man on his third heart contending at the year’s most grueling tournament hasn’t been lost on him.
“I’m just trying to execute and then move to the next shot,” he says. “I guess that’s kind of reflective of how I’ve always lived my life. If you have a bad situation or a bad day, you get up and try to do it again.”
Erik Compton the golfer is ranked 187th in the world. He’s played in 99 career PGA Tour events and has finished in the top 10 in exactly three of them – two this year. Prior to this week, he’d played in only one career major, missing the cut at the 2010 U.S. Open, but as he not-so-subtly points out, “You’ve got to give me a break - I just had a new heart.”
Erik Compton the two-time heart transplant recipient is probably ranked a lot higher, if you could measure the impact he’s had on children around the world who are undergoing similar surgery to what he endured. When he was 12, his mother remembers, there was nobody with that experience who could offer him their support.
The two are forever entwined, the transplant recipient and the golfer, not just because they are one and the same, but because one led to the other. He might not be here – on the leaderboard, contending for one of the game’s most prestigious titles – without the journey. It steeled him for the so-called pressures of playing a game. It hardened his resolve in a world where the failures always exceed the successes.
“If I go out and shoot 90, I don’t think anyone will be surprised,” he says. “But if I shoot 67 again, you may be surprised.”
Just as his parents once sat in that hospital room and whispered words of encouragement to him, just as he often offers similar words of encouragement to children awaiting transplants, he’s received support from some of golf’s most legendary sources.
Two weeks ago, Compton had lunch with Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield Village. He hadn’t yet qualified for the U.S. Open, but the four-time winner knew his game would suit this venue. “If you get there, you’re going to have a special week,” Nicklaus told him. And on Saturday morning, with Compton needing a strong round to move up the leaderboard, Chi Chi Rodriguez called him and said, “You’re going to shoot 64 today.”
He missed by three strokes, but the third-round 3-under 67 tied for the best score of the day and put him in contention for not just a U.S. Open title, but for sports story of the year. Or decade.
Compton is equal parts inspirational, motivational and heartwarming – everything needed for a good Hollywood script. Now he’ll try to write his perfect ending at a tournament that he knows is a perfect symbol of his perseverance.
“I think my attitude suits a U.S. Open-style course,” he explains. “Because I don’t ever give up.”