PINEHURST, N.C. – Erik Compton sat in the cool of his hotel room on Friday morning and watched Martin Kaymer make Pinehurst No. 2 look like a glorified pitch-and-putt course for the second straight day and had one thought: “If he’s going low like this, I need to get going and go low myself this afternoon.”
One would expect someone who believes he can win the U.S. Open to think that way. After all, those with experience in major championships know that 36 holes – no matter how impressive – does not make a major champion.
Compton, though, is hardly drowning in experience in majors.
This U.S. Open is the second one he has played. Four years ago he missed the cut at Pebble Beach. As he watched Kaymer’s bravura performance on Friday, Compton was a lot closer to the cut line after an opening-round 72 than he was to contending. After shooting a 2-under-par 68 in the midday heat that afternoon, he found himself tied for 14th place – a long way (10 shots) from Kaymer – but moving in the right direction.
On Saturday he will play the weekend at a major for the first time in his life.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Compton said late Friday after shooting a very solid 2-under-par 68. “But I’m certainly not satisfied with it. There’s more to be done.”
It’s fair to say that those five words have been Compton’s mantra for most of his life. Everyone in golf is familiar with his story. He has had two heart transplants, one at age 12, the second 16 years later after his first heart began to shut down while he was in his car at home in Miami. He drove to the hospital, convinced he was dying, and called his parents from the emergency room to say goodbye before he was taken into surgery.
Compton didn’t die that day, but he had to wait six months for a second heart transplant. Five months later, he played again on the PGA Tour, making the cut (T-60) at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic. There was something exactly right about his return coming at a tournament with the word "miracle" in its name.
But there was still more to be done. Compton didn’t want to be the guy who survived two heart transplants and was still able to play pretty good golf when he got a sponsor’s exemption on Tour. He wanted to qualify to be a full-time player on the PGA Tour, and he wanted to win on the PGA Tour.
“I know my story is going to be something people are going to want me to talk about for the rest of my life, because it can give people going through what I’ve gone through hope,” Compton said. “I like doing that. I want to do that. But I also want people to look at me and say, ‘hey, he’s a really good player,’ too.”
In 2011, Compton won on the Web.com Tour and finished 13th on the money list to qualify for the big tour. He came up 12 spots short of keeping his card at the end of 2012 but survived the six-day grind of Q-School finals to get his card back. That may have been his most remarkable achievement, especially the closing 65, because stamina has been and always will be a concern for him.
In 2013, Compton finished T-4 at the Honda Classic and finished the season 117th on the FedEx Cup points list, meaning he was able to keep his card for this season. So far this year, at age 34, he has played his most consistent golf ever, going through a three-tournament stretch – Bay Hill, Houston and New Orleans – where he finished T-5, T-12, T-5. He’s already made $863,233 and arrived at the Open in 87th place on the FedEx Cup points list.
“I’ve learned how to pace myself better the longer I’ve been out here,” Compton said. “I know I have to save my energy for the golf tournaments. No long practice sessions – especially when it’s hot. I rarely go to the practice tee after I play like most guys do. I try to figure out exactly how much I need to see the course before a tournament. I don’t want to overdo anything.”
Compton often travels with his wife, Barbara, and their 5-year-old daughter, Petra. This week they stayed home, at least in part so he could completely focus on the task at hand.
He skipped Memphis a week ago and traveled to Pinehurst last weekend to get ready for the Open. He played a total of 27 holes over four days to get ready for his Thursday morning tee time. More and more players are practicing less prior to majors in order to be rested. The difference with Compton is he really doesn’t have a choice if he expects to get through four grinding days in the North Carolina heat.
On Friday, he arrived at the course worried as much about dealing with the heat as the golf course. “I had to remind myself to stay hydrated the entire day,” he said. “I didn’t want my energy level to fade on the back nine.”
He drank, by his unofficial count, 15 bottles of water during the five hours he was on the course and admitted afterward that he was glad the round was over. The key to the day was his putting on the front nine: he made critical up-and-downs at 5 and 6 and started to feel confident. “Actually if I had putted as well on the back nine as I did on the front it could have been 65 or 66 instead of 68,” he said. “But I’m not complaining.”
There are days when it is almost impossible for Compton to play. He deals with serious sinus headaches constantly and must take a raft of pills in the morning and even more at night. On Friday, after finishing, Compton didn’t head for the practice tee or even for a couch to put his feet up.
“I think I should probably go and get an I.V.,” he said. “More as a precaution. I feel OK, but I want to be sure I’m ready to go tomorrow.” He smiled. “Kaymer can't shoot another 65 tomorrow, right? I need to go be ready to go low – be the one to shoot 65.”
He was smiling as he spoke, but there wasn’t any doubt that he was completely serious. Making the cut was a nice step but that’s all it was. Earlier, someone had asked him how he was dealing with the combination of the heat and the pressure of a U.S. Open.
Compton shrugged. “Well,” he said. “I never quit.”
He knows there’s always more to be done.