This story first appeared in Sportsnet magazine following the Canadian Open in the summer. On Tuesday, Erik Compton earned a 2013 PGA Tour card by finishing in a tie for seventh at Q-School.
After two heart transplants, Erik Compton is happy to be alive — and is playing the best golf of his life.
Walking off the 18th green on Friday, after another missed cut at the 2007 Albertsons Boise Open, a Nationwide Tour stop in Idaho, Erik Compton was distraught. Posting a nine on the par-four fifth hole ended any hopes of playing on the weekend. Little did he know, it also probably saved his life.
That Sunday, having flown home to Miami, Compton just wasn’t feeling right, and with the state of his heart — his second heart, a transplant still ticking six years longer than expected — he decided to drive to the hospital to get checked out. As he pulled into the parking lot, a blockage in his left main coronary artery resulted in a heart attack. Compton managed to get as far as the front doors of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital before collapsing. He suffered a severe heart attack, but being at a hospital familiar with his condition, he had a life-saving stent placed in his heart, and survived to go on the donor list for a second new heart.
Had he made the cut and still been in Idaho, the outcome may have been much different. “Things like that make you stop and think,” says Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Erik’s mentor and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Now a 32-year-old rookie on the 2012 PGA Tour, Compton has not only beaten the odds, he’s completely ignored them. Twenty-three years and two hearts after being told he would never play competitive sports again — and after surgeries, setbacks and even quitting the game — Compton is making good and playing the best golf of his life.
When Compton was nine, doctors discovered his heart muscle was inflamed, preventing it from pumping blood as it should. He was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy; only a heart transplant could give him a shot at a full life. In February 1992, after nearly three years of searching, a donor was found, a 15-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver. The transplant was a success, but ruled out more athletic sports for Compton. It was then that he discovered golf, first as a way to rehab from the surgery, but eventually as a way to fill the void left by other sports. Compton set out to see just how good he could get. By the time he was finished college at the University of Georgia — with two SEC championships and a U.S. Walker Cup appearance under his belt — he was good enough to go pro.
It wouldn’t be a straight line to the PGA. Compton bounced between the Nationwide and Canadian Tours, struggling to make cuts and find his game until he hit rock bottom and considered retirement in 2007.
But there was a lot more to Compton’s struggle than just missed putts or sliced drives. The toll his heart condition was taking on his body was tremendous. Fatigue limited him to hitting range balls for only 20-30 minutes a day at most, and the grind of four-day tournaments, practice rounds and travel was too taxing. Tiring during rounds, Compton’s distance off the tee plummeted late in the day, compounding difficulties elsewhere. Never one to complain, Compton found the bright side. “Practice wasn’t a huge issue,” he said. “I was blessed with great hand-eye coordination and my competitive spirit always kept me going.”
But then, you’ll never hear Compton gripe. Not even about the effect his medication takes — 15 pills every morning, another 15 at night, with side effects that stunned Chi-Chi. “Here’s a guy that’s supposed to be six-foot-two,” he says, “but instead is five-foot-eight and 150 lb., because the medication has stunted his growth so much.” Brad Adamonis, Compton’s buddy from the Nationwide Tour, agrees. “He takes so many pills, pills that are very strong and often changing. Just coping with the effects that takes is truly an unbelievable feat.”
Compton’s story became even harder to believe in May 2008, when he underwent a second transplant surgery. It was nearly eight months after he’d collapsed outside Miami Jackson Memorial. Dr. Si Pham, Director of Cardiopulmonary Transplantation and the Artificial Heart Program at the University of Miami, had finally found a donor: Isaac Klosterman, a former college-level volleyball player who lost his life in a hit-and-run.
While the surgery offered a new lease on life, it nearly killed his pro career. After the operation Erik resigned himself to a life away from professional golf. His now-wife Barbara had then just given birth to their first child, Petra, and Compton resolved to put family first. He sold his clubs and lost status on all professional tours. He was just happy to be alive.
In the back of Compton’s mind, though, the dream to make the PGA remained. “He would tell me he’d love to feel what those guys feel who win tournaments on the PGA Tour,” says Adamonis, “to know you’ve won on the best tour in the world.”
So as Compton began rehab and realized the Tour might actually be a possibility — now with this new heart beating stronger than anticipated — he set a goal to get back to the Nationwide Tour. His family understood, wanting to see him happy, despite the obstacles. “He knows what the limit is, he just likes to push it,” says Barbara.
Compton started getting special invitations to select PGA Tour events. Without status on any pro tours, these exemptions would be vital in gauging his game for a run at Q-School, Compton’s best option to get back to pro golf. Less than six months after his second heart transplant surgery, Compton made the cut at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney World — a fitting setting. He was given five special exemptions for the 2009 PGA season, making two cuts. He admits to feeling in over his head, but the experience was priceless.
After failing to get through Q-School in ’09, Compton relied on exemptions in 2010, once again gaining full status on the 2011 Nationwide Tour. His pro return from heart transplant surgery took just a year and a half. His real breakout moment, though, came when he least expected it. After a strong start on the 2011 Nationwide Tour, Compton came to the Puerto Rico Open in late June in good shape on the money list and gearing up for the following week’s PGA Tour event, the AT&T National. When hurricane-like conditions loomed, Compton considered withdrawing. The grind of 72 holes in good weather is hard enough, but with high winds, a wet course and slow rounds, few would have faulted Compton for backing out. “I really did consider it, but (my caddy) steered me straight. He told me I do my best work in tough conditions, given my past,” Compton says.
Weather delays meant playing 27 holes on Sunday but, unfazed, Compton fired a final round 65 and claimed his first Nationwide victory. More importantly, he secured his 2012 PGA Tour Card. “I was ecstatic,” he says. “It was a pretty emotional time for my family and friends, just a culmination of everything.”
The euphoria wouldn’t last long. Within a few weeks Compton was suffering from nausea, fatigue and persistent coughing — symptoms his body was rejecting the transplant. But Compton took it in stride. “He just remained so positive, and that really stood out to me because I love people with guts,” says Rodriguez. “If I had a son, I’d want him to be like Erik.”
Thanks to an increased dosage of his immunosuppressant, Compton was back on the golf course. He finished 2011 making five of six cuts on the PGA Tour and landing 13th on the Nationwide Tour money list.
Prepping for this season, Erik had to reassess — and advance — his goals. He won’t say it without a chuckle, but Rodriguez and Adamonis see a win on the Tour as a distinct possibility for Compton. So far he’s made 12 of 20 cuts, earning well over $300,000 with a chunk of the schedule still remaining.
That said, Compton can’t ignore those old issues with his heart. When the rolling hills of the Canadian Open course at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club in July threatened to exacerbate Compton’s issues with fatigue, he had a solution. Caddy Phil Smith provided stability, his fist in the small of Erik’s back, literally pushing him uphill to preserve momentum and, ultimately, energy. Par for the course, really, for the man who successfully got a PGA dispensation to use an electric cart upon his PGA return from his second transplant.
Compton is the first to admit he’s been lucky in life and recovery, but lucky or not, sometimes the Golf Gods don’t follow suit. A four-putt from just 24 feet on Friday’s 10th hole dropped Compton below the cut line and ended his shot at the weekend in Hamilton. His Canadian Open aspirations failing to come to fruition, Erik’s focus now shifts to moving from 162nd on the money list into the top 125 to regain his Tour card for next season. Compton is determined to use his success to serve as an example for successful organ donation, and has partnered with Donate Life American to raise awareness. “I’m living proof it does work,” he says.
Compton has come to embrace being known as “the guy with the hearts” — being the only pro golfer with a transplanted heart. The future of his current heart is uncertain, and a third transplant isn’t out of the question, but for now, Compton’s enjoying every day, hoping for more up and downs on the course, and fewer off it.