PINEHURST, N.C. — If Erik Compton, currently in second place in the U.S. Open after 54 holes, wins this country’s national golf championship Sunday, it may be the greatest testament to both the metaphor and the reality of competitive heart in sports that we will ever see. Compton, you see, is playing with his third heart.
Compton, 34, who received new hearts at the age of 12 and again six years ago after a heart attack in 2007, stands five shots behind Germany’s Martin Kaymer, a classic fit champion who already has won a PGA Championship and, just last month, the Players Championship. Compton has never won anything except the 2011 Mexican Open — and the admiration and affection of almost everyone who has ever met him.
“I have nothing to lose. Nobody expects me to do anything. If I go out and shoot 90, I don’t think anybody will be surprised,” Compton said after matching Rickie Fowler for the lowest round of the day on Pinehurst No. 2 with a 67. Then, after a pause, he added, “but if I shoot 67 again, you may be surprised.”
Perhaps every viewer worldwide not actually named Kaymer would love that shock. But Compton probably won’t win. He’s ranked 187th in the world. He once spent almost a decade playing all over the world in every obscure minor league tour. He’s 5-feet-8, 150 pounds and has unexpected bouts of lost energy for “no rhyme or reason.”
At many events he’s allowed to use a cart, though he often declines, but the USGA forbids it on this hot, humid track. His deficit to Kaymer almost defines insurmountable. But then Compton doesn’t accept the normal definition of that word.
“My attitude suits a U.S. Open style course because I don’t ever give up,” said Compton. “I’m extremely hard on myself, but I tend to forget the shots I hit bad and move to the next hole. And sometimes I don’t even know what hole I’m on because I’m just trying to execute and then move to the next shot.
“I guess that’s kind of reflective of how I always lived my life,” said Compton, who regularly blocks out weeks when he visits hospitals or speaks to those who need an example of determination. “If you have a bad situation or a bad day, you get up and try to do it again.”
Compton is far better known and admired within the golf community than he is by the general public. How did he even get into this Open? He had lunch with Jack Nicklaus last week, and “he kind of winked at me and said, ‘Your game will suit Pinehurst,’ ” said Compton, who still had to get through sectional qualifying in a 120-man field just to reach the Open.
“Jack had a look in his eye. You know how he is, very dry. He said if I got here, I would have a special week,” said Compton, who squeezed into this field after a five-man playoff. “I let [Jack] know that I qualified. So maybe it’s a self-fulfilling thing I brought on myself.”
Before his round Saturday, Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez told him he would “shoot 64” because “of how tough you are.”
Most golfers duck the idea of talking about winning an Open before it actually happens as a surefire jinx. But perhaps in Compton’s case, standing in second place and having the right to talk about it was a triumph in its own right. “It would mean the absolute world to me . . . and those who have been through some tough times,” he said. “I might just sail off and never play golf again.”
How did we get here? When Compton was 9, he was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is inflamed and unable to pump as hard as it should. When his own heart failed at 12 and a transplant was done, he was told his athletic dreams were done, though there is a home movie of him as a child being wheeled out of surgery in which he vows that he will still be a major league baseball player. He continued to play football, baseball and basketball with his parents insisting he think of himself as normal and capable of anything. He became a two-time college all-American at the University of Georgia.
Once, representing the United States in the Walker Cup, he told the European press that, maybe, not for sure, his transplanted heart was from a Scottish girl. They ate it up. Okay, so it was a Michigan girl. You play with somebody else’s heart, you get to have a little fun after the 10 millionth question.
When that heart wore out and a heart attack at 28 almost killed him, no one thought he would play competitive golf again. He was married, ready to start a family. Just being alive ought to be enough. When he had that heart attack in ’07 while fishing on a golf course, he drove himself to the hospital, blew through a toll booth — his father still has the photo from the ticket — and told the hospital staff they could circular file that paperwork or “they wouldn’t have anybody to check in.”
No one, including Compton, thought he would climb the golf mountain again. In five years on the Web.com tour, he earned less money than they pay for seventh place here. Yet he had to try, did and found himself a better player than he had been before. He’s still never finished higher than fourth in 99 previous PGA Tour events, though No. 100 certainly looks promising. But this week he’ll probably go past $1 million in ’14 earnings and is in his third season as a consistent cut-making check casher.
Because of his heart’s story and the arc of a golf life that seems to have a rainbow quality at this moment, Saturday evening became, by an unspoken acclimation, the time to reflect on Erik. His grit and focus are so well known that top players like to practice with him in hopes that something may rub off on them that is unconnected to talent. He’s so ready to take on anybody, anywhere, anytime that the money game he played in a practice round was with Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
“I felt comfortable,” said Compton, who looks older than his age — hey, it’s been a hard life — and could be everyman at the Safeway. “Those guys are all major champions, but I joked around with them, told them I was the Mexican Open champ. . . .
“I’ve played a lot of golf in my life. Sometimes my great golf is not on the PGA Tour; maybe it’s at the Canadian Tour, or maybe it’s at Web.com Tour, or maybe it’s in Europe somewhere. So for me it’s the same guys.”
The same guys he always thinks he has the heart to beat.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.