PINEHURST, N.C. — In the golf record books, standards are high and the winnowing process is fierce. The U.S. Golf Association includes only two citations beside each year in its results for the U.S. Open, the championship of American golf: winner and runner-up.
Nobody else gets a mention unless you dig deep for the full field. For 2014, the name Martin Kaymer will stand beside the word “winner” and with the dazzling distinction of winning on a merciless 7,562-yard track by eight shots.
But one of the names in the “runner-up” category may be as distinguished as almost any in the sport: Erik Compton, the golfer who faced down Pinehurst No. 2 with Heart No. 3.
Enormously gifted 25-year-old Rickie Fowler and Compton, a 34-year-old journeyman ranked 187th in the world, tied for second. In time, Compton may be remembered more than any runner-up in golf history. Entering this week, he had not finished higher than fifth in 99 previous PGA Tour events, and his only win on any tour was the modest Mexico Open in 2011.
He weighs only 150 pounds and must always monitor his recalcitrant body, which afflicts him with everything from vertigo to allergies, after receiving heart transplants at 12 and again at 28 after a heart attack almost killed him.
No one has to make a movie about Compton, though someone surely will. The tape of this Open should suffice, not because Compton played flawlessly but because, as big names collapsed, he clawed at Kaymer’s huge lead, then when any realistic chances to win were gone, battled and scrambled through all kinds of trouble on the closing holes to stay under par (a symbolic Open number) and finish tied for second.
With a seven-foot par putt on the last hole, he finished an incredible week of 72-68-67-72 work at 1-under-par 279. Just as valuable, as a man who already spends large amounts of his time visiting hospitals and speaking to the disabled, he used his platform to articulate the message he personifies.
“We all have adversities in our lives. Some are more major,” said Compton, a long enough hitter that he reached a 611-yard par-5 in two shots with apparent ease, yet seems to have few visible muscles on a 5-foot-8 frame and looks small beside his caddie. “The up-and-down I made on 18 is an example of never giving up. I hit the world’s worst shot into the green and then got up-and-down.
“When you have health issues, some days are really bad. Then you have got to make the best of the next day. Wake up and move,” said Compton, who was spitting blood and had to be revived on the operating table, literally pulled back from the edge, after he drove himself to a hospital following his 2007 heart attack. “I’m a perfect example. I’ve been on my back twice, and I never thought I would ever leave the house. Now I just finished second in the U.S. Open. I don’t think anybody would have ever thought I would do that, not even myself. You can’t ever write yourself off.”
For his finish, Compton earned $790,000, three times as much as he won in five years combined on the Web.com tour before his ’07 heart attack. After the second transplant, almost no one thought he would play competitive golf again, though he had been a two-time all-American at the University of Georgia. There was, however, one exception — Compton himself.
“I don’t think golf was ever out of his mind. He never said, ‘No way,’ ” said Jim McLean, a Florida teaching pro who instructed Compton as a boy and has been a lifelong friend. “It’s a phenomenal achievement. He was a hero to me before this. Now, doing this, I’m just so proud of him.
“Second in the U.S. Open is something beyond anything I’d ever imagined for him,” McLean told reporters after the round.
By the 72nd hole, Kaymer was in complete control of himself and this event, playing immaculately with titanic irons, many off the tees on long par-4s. He was a symbol of strength, athletic pedigree and fully fit youth in full bloom at 29. In other words, a normal Open winner, though with an abnormally distinguished week of 65-65-72-69 — 9-under 271 play.
By the 72nd hole, Compton was all over the course, trying to hold himself and his disintegrating game together after a round in which he played aggressively to try to catch Kaymer. Compton managed three birdies in the first 10 holes, but in trying to make others, he found trouble and wore himself down. At the eighth hole, when he followed a bogey at the No. 7 with an amazing 196-yard uphill iron shot to five feet to set up a birdie, fans were not yelling his name. They were yelling a different word: “Miracle.”
Compton tried to provide it, but no one could approach Kaymer this week. As Compton’s energy flagged, he kept hanging on to save unlikely pars. In his mind, the crowd was his extra adrenaline. “On every hole, from the tee box to the putting green, people were cheering for me. I definitely felt the love,” Compton said. “To do this at such a high level is just as good a feeling as winning a golf tournament. I can’t wait to get back to another major.”
And he will. His high Open finish will get him exemptions to next year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Even though he had not finished higher than fifth in a PGA Tour event, this performance brought his ’14 earnings to more than $1.6 million, easily ensuring his playing card for next year after he had battled to win enough in ’12 and ’13 to stay exempt.
Less than two weeks ago, Compton didn’t even have a spot in this Open. After a lunch with Jack Nicklaus, who told him Pinehurst No. 2 would suit his game and that he would “do something special” if he could qualify, Compton made it into the field out of a 120-player qualifying field. Yes, he needed to play 36 holes, then survive a five-man, two-hole playoff just to get through the Pinehurst gates.
There aren’t odds for any of this, not in golf, surely, and barely in life.
“I think I showed the world today that I’m capable of playing good golf under extreme pressure and heat. And I think I showed myself,” said Compton, whose greatest on-course vulnerablility is wilting in high heat, like the entire week here.
Beside the Carolina swelter, he also has coped with vertigo and allergies this week, as well as taking his jillion daily pills, like many with transplanted hearts who have an unpredictable life expectancy.
As much as Kaymer distinguished himself, Compton’s week probably will be remembered longer. “If I never played golf again for the rest of my life,” he said, “I think that I have made my mark in the game.”
Because the world insists on keeping score, it’s that final putt at the 18th to stay under par for the week and to tie for second place that ensured Compton’s career achievement would get its due. He rolled it right in the center. In an instant, Compton was hugged by his caddie, whose eyes were full. Then he was cheered by tens of thousands, whose eyes and hearts were full as well.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.