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Two heart transplants later, Erik Compton is set to tee off in the 2010 U.S. Open

Golfer Erik Compton had a viral cardiomyopathy diagnosed at age 9 and three years later became the youngest transplant patient in the history of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. "I'm always very, very inspired by the 'no quit' he has," said his father, Peter.
Golfer Erik Compton had a viral cardiomyopathy diagnosed at age 9 and three years later became the youngest transplant patient in the history of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. "I'm always very, very inspired by the 'no quit' he has," said his father, Peter. (Michael Cohen/getty Images)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- By the time Erik Compton takes to the Pebble Beach Golf Links on Thursday for the first round of the U.S. Open -- the first major championship in what, on paper, looks to be an unremarkable career -- the shadows will be long, the galleries thin. The Pacific Ocean looks stunning as the sun sets, but not many golf fans will make it a point to trudge along the cliffs to watch Compton -- some 30-year-old from Miami, an Open qualifier -- play with Russell Henley and Jason Allred. The threesome has, among them, two competitive Open rounds in its past, and with a tee time after 2:30 p.m., the stars will have departed the course, and the fans will have followed them to dinner, discussing all they have seen.

Maybe they should, however, be discussing Compton. His stats: two victories on the Canadian tour, two more on the Hooters Tour, another professional win in Morocco -- what he calls the highlight of his career -- and no standing whatsoever on the PGA Tour, the big show. Oh, and two heart transplants.

"I'm always very, very inspired by the 'no quit' he has," said his father, Peter.

Of the 156 players in the field for the 110th U.S. Open -- major winners and minor players, big names and no names -- none has a story to match that of Compton. With a viral cardiomyopathy diagnosed at age 9, a disease that infects the heart muscle, he became, at 12, the youngest heart transplant patient in the history of Jackson Memorial Hospital in his home town of Miami. Some 16 years later, after he had made his way through the University of Georgia on a golf scholarship and turned professional, he was fishing on a golf course when he felt some tingling in his arm. His heart had worn down and out. He called his mother, Eli, who said what a mother would say: Get yourself to a hospital.

"Just like Erik would," Peter Compton said, "he drove himself to the hospital," blowing through a toll booth, and Peter even has the picture from the ticket to prove it. Upon arrival, Erik told the staff that they better forget the check-in process, "or they wouldn't have anybody to check in," Peter said. That episode, late in 2007, eventually brought on heart transplant No. 2, early in 2008. He was 28, married, ready to start a family -- and figuring he was done with golf.

"I had pretty much come to grips that I was never going to play golf again," Compton said. He sold all his equipment. He was, in his mind, done.

There was, though, no indication in Compton's past that he would truly quit. There were times, when Erik was a kid, when Peter and Eli Compton thought they might lose their boy to the virus. He had been the best athlete in his grade school, the pitcher and the quarterback, the fastest runner. Then came the diagnosis and, eventually, the transplant.

Yet two years later, Erik was back on the mound, pitching. "What a day that was," Peter Compton said. They ended up steering Erik toward golf because it would be less strenuous. They learned to deal with the medication he had to take, his occasionally waning energy.

"There's a lot of fear in our life every day that something might happen to him," Eli Compton said. "But we have learned to live with that. . . . And he just goes for it."

So after the heart attack that precipitated his second transplant, even as he peddled away his clubs, his family figured he would return. He needed the competition. At times, he even needed a distraction -- golf, fishing -- from the problems of his regular life.

"To be honest, with Erik, everything is possible," said his wife, Barbara. "He loves challenges, so there's nothing that's going to stop him."

This season, Compton did not earn full playing status on the PGA Tour in qualifying school, so he has played only on the kindness of sponsors' exemptions. The last of those came two weeks ago at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus's tournament outside Columbus, Ohio. Compton made the cut by one shot, a feat in itself. Eventually, though, his condition -- the reality he deals with every day -- reminded him of what he has been through. His conditioning is not what he wants it to be, and four consecutive rounds saps him of energy.


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