PINEHURST, N.C. – Don’t believe the clichés.
Erik Compton lost the 114th U.S. Open and he wasn’t happy about that. Working on his third heart and borrowed time, it’s easy to dismiss the here and now for the view from 30,000 feet, and the 34-year-old certainly has enough perspective to fill one of Pinehurst’s roomy fairway bunkers.
But to sugarcoat his major miss is a disservice to the player if not the patient.
“I finished second in a major championship and I feel like I played some of my best golf,” Compton said following his closing 72 at Pinehurst. “But there was still, I missed a lot of putts and if I had the putter rolling this week I could have been close to catching him.”
For a competitor like Compton, there is little consolation in runner-up finishes, which is better known in U.S. Open circles as the Phil Mickelson flight.
Compton is a fighter, a survivor and, above all, an intense competitor. You don’t endure two heart transplants and a doctor’s diagnosis following your second surgery that you would never play golf again without a fair amount of stubbornness.
“He’s been through a lot, but this is different. People say he’s been through a heart transplant twice and that this (the U.S. Open) isn’t going to be anything. That’s not true. He feels the way anybody would,” said Jim McLean, Compton’s swing coach since he was 12.
There is plenty of perspective and it comes free of charge with all those bandages and baggage. You don’t make phone calls like the one Compton made back in the summer of ’08 without having a perfect Vardon grip on reality.
McLean remembers the day he was enjoying a San Diego Padres game in ’08 when his phone buzzed.
“I saw it was Erik and I answered it and he said, ‘The (second heart donor) died. They are flying the heart down and they are doing the transplant tonight,’ ” an emotional McLean said as he trailed Compton early in his final round on Sunday. “It was quite a call to get. He said, ‘I just wanted to say goodbye just in case.’ ”
It was the same moxie that had driven the 12-year-old Compton to the practice tee after he’d been given his first second chance at life in 1992. When Compton arrived at McLean’s golf school he was 240 pounds because of all the steroids he was taking and only able to execute half-shots with a compact swing.
He would go on to become the nation’s top-ranked junior and star on the University of Georgia’s golf team. The PGA Tour, however, remained elusive, with cameos in Canada, Europe and on the secondary Web.com Tour before his second heart hit its shelf life in 2007 and he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.
He waited on the donor list for months before a matching heart could be found and the second procedure was debilitating.
“He was dying. He was really bad,” McLean said. “You wouldn’t believe it. If you saw him after I saw him, about 10 days after the operation he said, ‘Come here, I want to show you.’ He took his shirt off and showed me. It was unreal.”
Doctors told Compton he’d never play golf again and he said all the right things. He and McLean even took a walk one day around the hospital to talk alternate career choices. Not surprisingly it was a short list – fishing.
But as massive scars turned from red to a deep purple Compton began tinkering with the same abbreviated swing he’d perfected all those years earlier, and in 2012 he earned his first trip to the Tour.
Last year he kept his card, advancing to the second FedEx Cup Playoff event and was honored with the PGA Tour’s Courage Award. But this week, this major was different.
After so much adversity, so many distractions and pedestrian play he advanced through sectional qualifying to earn a spot at Pinehurst, enduring a five-for-three playoff that stretched what is already a long day into a 38-hole marathon.
“Long days for me you can feel it in my chest,” Compton told your scribe in darkness at the qualifier. “You can see me all day like that (holding his shaking hand out).”
Because of his suppressed immune system he has struggled lately with allergies and weakness. At the Memorial Tournament he started losing his hearing in his left ear.
Pinehurst, where temperatures hovered near 90 degrees all week, would test his mind, body and swing.
“People don’t know the medicine he takes every day,” McLean said. “The heart rate goes up under pressure. He’s got a much bigger hill to climb than most people.”
But Compton endured. He always does, opening with rounds of 72-68-67 to begin the final round five strokes behind a German on a misson.
He didn’t have his best stuff on Sunday and hit the metaphorical wall on the closing nine with bogeys at Nos. 11, 12 and 15, but he scrambled at the last for a par to secure his runner-up showing, a spot in next year’s Masters and the undisputed title as the crowd’s rooting favorite.
“I’ve been on my back twice and I never thought I would ever leave the house,” Compton said. “Now, I just finished second at the U.S. Open, which I don’t think anybody would have ever thought I would do that, not even myself.”
On Saturday night Compton was asked what he would do if he won his national championship and he figured he would sail off and never play golf again. Luckily for his growing legion of fans there is still work to be done.
“We promised him with a new heart there would be new life,” said Compton’s mother, Eli. “We told him, ‘Once you get a new heart you’re going to be a champion.’ ”
Even without the big silver trophy perched next to him on Sunday it was clear he already is a champion.