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Erik Compton unafraid of playing through a pandemic: 'I’ve been at risk my whole life'

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In a sign of these socially distanced times, we’re in the same city, at the same tournament, speaking not in person but over the phone.

“I think this uncertainty actually plays into my favor,” Erik Compton said the other day from his Airbnb. “I’ve been playing in uncertain situations, stop and go, my entire life.”

From being a promising youth baseball player to contracting viral cardiomyopathy.

From feeling great, chasing his pro golf dreams, to suffering a heart attack and telling his parents goodbye.

From being told he’s not going to play for 18 months to earning his PGA Tour card.

From finishing second in the U.S. Open to tinkering with his medication.

“Uncertainty is basically my story,” he said.

No one in golf has experienced more health issues than Compton, and so no one in golf is more at risk as the sport returns in earnest this week amid a global pandemic. He’s in the field here at the Korn Ferry Challenge, the first event on this circuit in 15 weeks.

Rust isn’t Compton’s only concern while restarting on tour. A two-time heart-transplant recipient, he pops 20 to 25 pills a day just to give his immune system a fighting chance. His meds need to be adjusted, constantly, or his body will attack his transplanted organ. Even still, his body takes a constant beating. If a relatively healthy 40-year-old can shake a mild cold in two or three days, it might take Compton two weeks.

That’s problematic, because for professional golfers, germ-filled airports and planes are a necessary evil. Whenever he travels, Compton usually comes down with a sore throat or some deep-congestion cough that lasts a while. Sure enough, while flying from Colombia in early February, he sat in the terminal as those around him “sneezed and hacked all over the bench.” Disgusted, he moved to the other side of the airport, but it was too late. By the time he got home, he was sick and eventually needed to see his doctor. Still dealing with the effects, he chose not to travel to the upcoming event in Mexico. That was the last tournament played on the Korn Ferry schedule, on March 1.

Like everybody else, Compton watched the coronavirus spread across the country, state by state, the death toll rising to more than 115,000. His hometown of Miami has been one of the hardest-hit areas; one of his transplant doctors, who was treating COVID-19 patients, fell ill himself, requiring a stay in the intensive care unit. “It is real, and sometimes it’s unfortunate that people don’t notice it until it hits them square in the face,” he said.

With local courses closed, Compton only started practicing over the past month. For the most part, he’s been a father to his 12-year-old daughter, Petra, and a handyman around the house. Whenever he ventured out, he was diligent as usual. He wiped down groceries from Publix. Fill-ups at the gas station were a process – mask, gloves, wipes. Area restaurants had a simple mandate: No mask, no service. In a way, that was comforting.

Erik Compton

Compton was prepared to take similar precautions as he drove up I-95 to Jacksonville. His mask bears a striking resemblance to Bane’s, but around town here Compton often felt as though he was the only one who still appreciated the virus’ danger. He saw few face coverings. More close contact. Bustling restaurants. “It’s like a different world from Miami,” he said. “It felt a little uncomfortable to me.”

Compton was planning to keep to himself anyway, unwilling to take on any unnecessary risk. He booked an Airbnb for this two-week stretch in northeast Florida, an arrangement that allows him to limit his interaction with others and prepare his own food. When Compton arrived for his Tuesday morning practice round at TPC Sawgrass, he noticed the first tee was jammed with players eager to finally get out and play. So he took only his putter and walked the front nine, getting a feel for the greens and chatting amiably with his peers he hadn’t seen in three months. Except for a few elbow taps, he maintained a safe distance.

Long term, who knows? He won’t play more than three weeks in a row. He’ll tee it up the next few weeks, reassess and then target the Texas stops. Though not a perfect option for someone with a weakened immune system, he’s excited about the $300-a-seat Tour-chartered flights between events.

“This is all about putting your trust and faith in everyone doing the right thing,” he said.

At some point in the conversation, the topic comes up: Why even bother playing, especially in this environment?

Compton took a moment to consider. He’s 40 years old. He has a family. He loves to play golf, sure, but in a regular money game at home, “I know what I’m going to shoot in my sleep.”

“It’s the competition,” he said. “That’s where I feel alive. It’s not really a competition against the other guys. It’s a competition against your life and what you want. And I want to be on the PGA Tour.”

And he was, literally, minutes away from that goal last year. In the second event of the season, he held a share of the 54-hole lead in the Bahamas but ballooned to a final-round 83. A few months later, at the Wichita Open, he once again carried the lead heading into the final round. Inclement weather pushed back the Sunday tee times – an hour, two hours, then into the early afternoon. Officials had to make a decision: Start the final round or call the event after 54 holes.

Compton said the Tour basically told him that he’d won the tournament. That the course was unplayable. That he needed to be ready in the next five minutes to come downstairs and accept the trophy.

He even phoned his parents: “I’m going to be back on the PGA Tour.”

Only the official soon called back, saying there was a window and they were forging ahead. Compton closed with 67 but wound up in a five-man playoff. He lost on the first extra hole.

That was the difference between his first promotion to the PGA Tour since 2016 and another year in the minors. He finished 39th on the points list, and then his stay on the Korn Ferry Tour was extended another year after the Tour announced there’d be no graduation for the top 25 players this season because of the pandemic. So those few minutes in Wichita changed the trajectory of his career. Had he won, Compton would have owned a Tour card for at least two years. Instead, he won't see the big tour until fall 2021, at the earliest, and that's hard to accept when his competitive clock is ticking.

“That was some day,” he sighed.

During the shutdown, Compton went through some old film and memorabilia from the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, gaining a new appreciation for some of the great moments he’s enjoyed in this game, for a nearly 20-year pro career that’s been longer than he ever could have imagined, given his circumstances. He framed some pictures and flags and gave them away to people who have played an important role in his life.

“I haven’t had time before to really go through that stuff,” he said, “and I came away wanting to be able to have more of those moments at that level.”

Whether he’ll be able to reach those heights again depends on his form, of course, but also his health as he plays in a pandemic.

“This isn’t scary for me,” he said, “because I’ve been at risk my whole life.”