Pinehurst, N.C. – On Father’s Day at our national championship, we will cheer for a man who didn’t think he’d live long enough to have a child, and did so only because he has the heart of a champion, even if it’s borrowed.
Erik Compton has never won a PGA Tour event, is playing in his second major championship, and missed the cut in his first. That would be enough to make him an appealing underdog, but that’s not why he could become the best story in the history of the U.S. Open.
When Compton was 12, he underwent heart transplant surgery, receiving the heart of a 15-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver. While being wheeled out of the operating room, he told his parents he would become a big-league baseball player.
“They have it on camera,” he said.
Seven years ago, Compton, now 34, was driving home from the driving range when his chest began to tighten. He sped to the hospital, walked into the emergency room coughing up blood, and told the staff he was having a heart attack.
“They asked him for his insurance card,” his mother, Eli, said Saturday. “Until he coughed up more blood.”
Compton called his parents. “He said goodbye to all of us,” Eli said.
In his third decade, Compton needed a third heart. He waited eight months before receiving the heart of Isaac Klosterman, a former volleyball player at the University of Dayton, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
The surgery took more than 12 hours. When he woke, he couldn’t feel one of his legs.
“We keep in touch with them,” Compton said of Isaac’s family. “I don’t know if they will be watching, but they’re a great family. They have a very special place here with me, and what more can I say? I mean, I feel blessed to be able to play here and without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
By “here,” he could have meant among the living, or high on the U.S. Open leaderboard.
Saturday, Compton shot a 67, tying Rickie Fowler for the low score of round 3. Both are 3 under, five shots behind Martin Kaymer.
This is already a career achievement for Compton. He has carved out a living playing minitours and fighting for places in PGA Tour events. This week, he played a practice round with Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. “These guys are all major champions,” Compton said. “I told them I was the Mexican Open champion.”
He had lunch with Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield last week. “He kind of winked at me and said, ‘Your game will suit Pinehurst,’ Compton said.
Nicklaus won four U.S. Opens, none as memorable as a Compton victory would be.
Compton takes handfuls of pills when he wakes up. Some are vitamins. Some help prevent his body from rejecting a heart that is not its own.
He is susceptible to allergies. He fatigues easily, so he rations his practice time. “A cold affects him much more than it affects others,” Eli said.
When Compton isn’t playing tournaments, he will visit children facing transplant surgery, or work with transplant organizations. His mother was holding a meeting with such an organization when he called her on his way to the hospital during his heart attack.
Eli said she “stopped thinking” during that call, and has developed a self-protective mind-set. “We just say, ‘Let’s take it one day at a time,’ “ she said.
Compton married after the second surgery. He has a daughter. And on a Father’s Day he didn’t expect to see, he will have a chance to win the United States Open.
Asked to think about that, Compton laughed and said, “I might just sail off, and never play golf again.”
“I have always thought he would win a major,” Eli said. “Why shouldn’t he, with all the work he has done?
As we’ve told him, he has the heart of a champion.”