This two-time heart transplant recipient’s heartbeat surged Thursday on the PGA Tour, and why he’s OK with that

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of playing on the PGA Tour for Erik Compton.

The 41-year-old two-time heart transplant recipient, who has spent most of his time competing on the Korn Ferry Tour the past five years, can tell the difference based on his heart rate alone.

“I looked at my watch, it was about 140, and when I play on the Korn Ferry Tour it’s about 107,” he said. “Maybe I need to jog around the block a little bit before the first round over there.”

This week his heart is where he feels really belongs. The 2014 U.S. Open runner-up is playing on a rare sponsor’s exemption at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, just his third PGA Tour start since 2016, and he’s making the most of the opportunity, opening with a bogey-free 5-under 65. Compton drained his longest birdie putt of the day at the first from 13 feet and then was locked in from inside 10 feet at Colonial Country Club. It didn’t hurt that he hit a bunch tight, including sticking it from 180 yards to 4 feet at 17.

“Yeah, it feels really good. I put in a lot of work on the putting,” he said. “I’ve been working with Phil Long with Axis One and grinding away and trying to get that right. I think that’s been the missing part of my game. I’m always a scrambler, so my chipping is good and if I can hit a few more fairways, I think I’ll have a good week.”

With streaks of gray in his beard, Compton celebrated his 29th anniversary for his combined transplants last week. He still has to pop a rotating assortment of more than 20 pills a day to keep his immune system in check, but it is the life he’s learned to live with for all these years.

“I’m a fighter, I’m a grinder. I put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be alive really. Spent most of my life with somebody else’s hearts. It’s a challenge, but I do the best that I can.”

Erik Compton hits from the rough on the 18th hole during the first round of the 2021 Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

What’s been tough to live with is the loss of his PGA Tour status. Most of his friends are still playing there and the purses on the Korn Ferry Tour are a fraction of what he used to play for until he lost his card after finishing 173rd in the FedEx Cup standings.

He appeared on the verge of returning to the Tour for the 2019-20 season. He was the leader heading into the final round at the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2019 Wichita Open. Weather delayed the start of the final round and he was told that the event was going to be reduced to 54 holes and to stand by for the trophy ceremony. He already had called his parents to tell them his first-place paycheck would secure his PGA Tour card.

Then, tournament organizers determined there was a window to play. He lost in a playoff and finished 39th on the KFT money list and was sentenced to another season in golf’s minor leagues, which was extended even further when the global pandemic froze player status for 2021. He has just two top-25 finishes in 25 starts on the 2020-21 wraparound season.

Compton’s inspirational story used to generate a plethora of sponsor invites, but those opportunities have dried up. So, he jumped at the chance to compete at the Charles Schwab Challenge this week and reconnect with old friends. His daughter, Petra, asked if he had seen Jordan Spieth, who was the only player to better Compton on Thursday morning with a 7-under 63.

“I thought that I was her biggest fan, but apparently not,” Compton said.

Still, Compton fights on. It’s what he does, and three more rounds like the one he played on Thursday could go a long way to improving his chances of a return engagement to the PGA Tour.

“My dream is to be back here and playing full-time again, make another run,” he said. “Today was one step in the right direction, but I know it’s a long week and I have to get rest and be ready for tomorrow.”