PINEHURST, NC - Erik Compton is not a feel-good story to share on Facebook, though he’ll understand if you do.
He’s not a beacon of perseverance and grit, not a TV movie-in-the-making. He’s a golfer, first and foremost, a golfer tied for second at the U.S. Open, a golfer who just happens to have an astonishing backstory.
Compton, age 34, is something of a medical miracle. He's had two heart transplants, his first coming when he was just 12, his second six years ago when he suffered a major heart attack and had to drive himself to the hospital to receive an emergency transplant.
You think Sunday at a major is going to scare a guy who's been through that?
He enters the final day of the U.S. Open tied for second at minus-3, albeit five strokes behind leader Martin Kaymer. No disrespect to the relentless Kaymer, but Compton was the far more compelling story on Saturday. He started the day at even par, then began a colorful up-and-down round highlit by a four-birdies-in-five-holes sequence from 7 to 11. He scored par on only 8 of 18 holes, but finished the day well in the red.
His story's a well-known one around golf types; each mark he's hit has drawn him more attention. First came his play at the University of Georgia, alma mater of eight players in this year's field. Then he played on half a dozen pro tours, winning the Mexican Open in 2011. He's bounced back and forth between the PGA Tour and lesser tours, and has only played in two majors: the 2010 U.S. Open, where he missed the cut, and this one.
Each step along the path, the stories have run the same way: miracle heart-transplant recipient reaches milestone X. Without in any way minimizing what his success means to others facing challenges, Compton concedes that he's just fine not bringing up the specifics of his life story at every tour stop.
"I plan weeks to share my story and visit hospitals," he said. "This week, I have really been kind of under the radar and trying to focus on golf. I'm in here because I'm playing well. ... I was just, for this tournament, enjoying focusing on my game."
It's a sentiment shared by those closest to him. When asked if his condition is ever an issue, even as a topic of conversation, Compton's coach Charles DeLucca is emphatic: "Nah. Never. He's a golf pro. He's an incredible player, and he's ready to take the step to the next level."
As for special treatment on the course, his caddy Victor Billskoog says there's nothing too unique about Compton's situation now: "There's not much different [than any other golfer]. We keep him hydrated. You can lose a lot of fluid out here."
Compton, who has in the past appealed to Tour officials to use a cart on the course, has to be somewhat more careful than the average golfer to avoid exhaustion and overexertion. He kept his practice rounds at Pinehurst to nine holes each of the first three days.
Still, let's be honest here: Making it to the U.S. Open is one thing; making it to Sunday with only one player ahead of you? That requires a whole extra level of talent, grace and luck for even the hyper-privileged golf types. So how exactly did Compton get here?
"I think that my attitude suits a U.S. Open style course because I don't ever give up," he said after the round. "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."
That style was in evidence on Saturday right from the day's beginning, when his mother told him that other players were starting to post some high numbers. "I just told her to get up and walk away," he said, laughing. "I try to avoid my parents during a major championship because it's a totally different mindset. ... I love my parents and I love all my friends, but you just don't want to hear about what's going on, because you need to get ready when you go play."
Once he took to the course, he stayed similarly dialed in, so much so that a fan in the bleachers on the 18th tee shouted, "Smile, Erik!" as he walked past. But he didn't bogey consecutive holes, didn't let the difficulty from any one hole seep into the next, and as a result he'll tee off on Sunday afternoon with Henrik Stenson in the second-to-last group.
After his round, Compton allowed himself a brief moment of speculation. "I were to win the tournament, it would be obviously something that would be extremely special, not only for me, but for my family and for those who have been around me ... those who have been through some tough times," he said. Then he smiled. "I might just sail off and never play golf again."
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