Cruising Into the Final Stage


ORLANDO, Fla. – One moment, Erik Compton is up on a ladder at his suburban Miami home hanging Christmas tree lights, the next he’s on the fringe of a high-speed chase of a robbery suspect.

That wasn’t exactly the rest-and-relaxation plan Compton had in mind last weekend as he prepared himself for the final stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School.

“Just a typical day in Miami, no big deal,” Compton said Monday after playing nine holes at the Crooked Cat Course at Orange County National, home to Wednesday’s start of Q-School.

Erik Compton 1st round 2010 U.S. Open
Erik Compton qualified for this year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (Getty Images)
Anyone who knows Compton’s story knows there aren’t any normal days in his life, not since he got his first heart transplant when he was 12, and certainly not since he rebounded from a heart attack that nearly killed him, leading to his second heart transplant two-and-a-half years ago.

So while other players might have been scrambling to get their games ready for Q-School last week, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Compton took another route. He put his clubs away. He didn’t touch them for nearly a week after advancing from second stage. He boarded a cruise ship and sailed the Caribbean with his family for four days. He worries more about stamina than his swing with six rounds and 108 holes awaiting him in the most grueling week of golf all year.

Back home on Saturday, Compton thought decorating his Coral Gables home for Christmas might be therapeutic. But it turned into something else.

With Compton hanging lights, a neighbor just a few houses down surprised intruders in a robbery attempt. The neighbor chased the getaway car past Compton’s home.

“The guy in the getaway car must have been going 60 mph down our street,” Compton said. “He was screeching his tires and skidding around the turn by our house. I thought he was going to crash into my yard.”

A few minutes later, police cars were swarming the neighborhood. Police told Compton another suspect on foot was loose in the neighborhood. They sent him indoors.

“I don’t think they caught the guy,” Compton said.

Compton is among 164 players vying to win the 25 or so PGA Tour cards that will be handed out at Q-School. There are some compelling stories at final stage. Brett Waldman, caddie for Camilo Villegas, is trying to win a card. So is Billy Hurley, a Naval Academy graduate who was serving a military stint defending the Persian Gulf just two years ago. And Ty Tryon, the former teen phenom attempting to get his card back nine years after he won PGA Tour membership as a 17-year-old.

Compton, though, could go down as the greatest Q-School story ever.

Nine years ago, under the rigors of final-stage pressure, Compton showed just how determined he can be.

In 2001, in the second round of the final stage of Q-School at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Compton felt woozy and collapsed. He briefly passed out into the arms of his caddie, who gently set him down in the middle of the fairway. Compton waved off a PGA Tour official’s attempt to call paramedics. He waved the group behind him around while he got his wits back, and then he got back on his feet and finished off his round. He went on to finish all six rounds, earning Nationwide Tour conditional status.

Four holes after Compton passed out that day, I stood with him at the side of the 11th tee with play backed up. He told me he collapsed after feeling momentarily dizzy, but he was over it, and he wasn’t about to withdraw.

“I’m not quitting,” Compton said that day. “There’s no way I’m quitting.”

Nine years later, he’s still persevering in a bid to win a card.

Compton, 31, is preparing differently than most of the pros here this week. He won’t hit as many balls or play as many practice holes. In fact, after making it through Q-School’s second stage last weekend, he didn’t touch his clubs until the following weekend. He celebrated Thanksgiving on the inaugural family-and-friends cruise of Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship. His father, Peter, is the cruise line’s vice president of entertainment. His brother, Christian, is a project manner who helped build the ship.

The Allure of the Seas is four football fields long, weighs 600 tons, is home to an open air “Central Park” and sleeps more than 5,000 passengers. It’s a modern marvel, kind of like Compton himself.

Compton did not swing a club for his four days aboard the ship.

“It’s good for me to get a few days off,” Compton said. “I always play better rested. For me, the big battle isn’t with the swing. It’s with fatigue.”

That’s why R&R with family was so important to Compton. He spent the cruise with his wife, Barbara, their 21-month-old daughter, Petra, and both of the couple’s parents.

Compton’s facing six long days of competition. Though he could have asked for a medical exception to play with a golf cart, he’s going to walk the 108 holes. The challenge, he knows, will come during the second half of the tournament.

“Usually, for a couple days after a tournament, I’m totally wiped out,” Compton said. “The fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, they’ll be hard for me.

“In the back of my mind, I thought about trying to get a cart, but I’m feeling good, and I’ve been doing so well. I want to make it like everyone else.”

Compton takes more than 20 pills a day as part of his heart medications. They have side effects, but he says he’s adjusting to them.

“Erik seems as relaxed and confident as he’s ever been,” says Compton’s mother, Eli.

Back in 2008, Compton missed getting through the second stage of Q-School by a single shot. This was just six months after undergoing his second heart transplant. He said back then that he plays with a more accelerated heart rate than most players.

“I’m riding a wave of playing well,” Compton said of his fall run. “I felt like going to Tour School this time, I was one of the guys who should make it through. In years past, I didn’t look at it like that. I’m up for this challenge.”