AUGUSTA, Ga. – Chris Haack’s interest in the Masters goes well beyond that of a normal fan of azaleas, pimento cheese and Sunday roars.
Haack is the head golf coach at the University of Georgia and could field a team with the number of former Bulldogs in this week’s field.
“Six,” Haack laughed on Monday when asked about the number of former players with tee times at Augusta National. “I’ve got a reserve.”
But of all the former Georgia players – a list that includes defending champion Bubba Watson, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd – Haack’s professional impartiality gives way to heartstrings when it comes to picking a favorite.
Erik Compton was on the 2000 and ’01 Georgia teams that won consecutive Southeastern Conference titles, and at 35 years old is among the 18 Masters rookies at this week’s tournament.
He’s also, after Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, the most compelling story.
Although his play this season, five missed cuts and just a single top-10 finish in 12 starts, leaves Compton well short of contender status, the fact that he even earned a ride down Magnolia Lane is a reason to appreciate his accomplishment.
Anyone who tuned in during last year’s U.S. Open can recite Compton’s tale – as a 12-year-old he suffered from viral cardiomyopathy and underwent heart transplant surgery; he had his second heart transplant in 2008.
That first procedure came four years after Compton watched the Masters for the first time. He’s never missed a telecast since, but that streak has been harder and harder to maintain in recent years.
After a lifetime spent trying to earn a start at the Masters, Compton began coming to grips with the reality that it may never happen following his second heart surgery.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that my first Masters is at 35 and everything that I've gone through; and there's times where I never thought I would ever play in the Masters,” he said. “There were times where it was tough to watch it on TV, as a player but not as a fan.”
His breakthrough came last June when he battled Martin Kaymer on Sunday at the U.S. Open to finish tied for second place and end his Masters wait.
It’s a measure of Augusta National’s relevance to Compton that he was the third group off on Monday morning. That’s after playing four out of the last five weeks on legs that don’t recover the way they once did.
Conserving energy, almost as much as converting 4- footers, is a part of every week’s game plan for Compton, particularly at a place that is as draining as it is mesmerizing. But Compton doesn’t figure that will be a problem by the time Thursday’s opening tee time rolls around.
“Sometimes in a regular Tour event, I've been known to lose focus and fall asleep,” conceded Compton, who made a scouting trip to Augusta National earlier this season. “Here, I think I'm happy with my form. I was a little concerned about the length of this golf course and how hard it is to walk, but when you have adrenaline and you have people rooting you on, it makes the week easy.”
Motivation, or maybe it’s energy, won’t be a problem, not here. Not at a place he’s been fixated on since he had his original heart. Not at a place he first experienced as a freshman when Haack and the team made the annual trip over from Athens, Ga., to play the iconic layout.
“I remember taking every one of those guys because when they are a freshman I want to see the reaction,” Haack said when asked about Compton’s first trip to Augusta National. “It’s the same with everyone, their jaws are dropping and they are just in such disbelief with everything. They are afraid to take a divot.”
More than most, Haack understands that Compton’s maiden trip to the Masters goes beyond the normal first-timer’s honeymoon.
Even as a freshman at Georgia it was a well-established reality that Compton’s career, which held tremendous potential following a stellar amateur career, would always be held hostage by his precarious medical history.
When he was forced back onto the heart donor list in 2008 many, including Compton, thought his career, as well as his window to play the Masters, had closed.
It’s what makes this first trip to the former fruit nursery so special.
“With Erik, because of his situation and what he has been through, he appreciates every opportunity he gets,” Haack said. “The U.S. Open was special but the Masters will probably be more special. No matter what happens I’m sure it will be a very a special week.”
It will certainly be a different week. After 26 years, Compton’s streak comes to an end. “It’s going to be weird not watching the Masters,” he smiled.