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The driving force of courageous Erik Compton

From two heart transplants to the US Open leaderboard, Steve Elling looks at one of the most unlikely rises to fame in the world of golf.
Erik Compton during the 2014 US Open. Reuters
Erik Compton during the 2014 US Open. Reuters

The National’s sports writers look at some of the unlikely sporting success stories going on in the world. Be it a flourishing where you would not expect it, or an athlete overcoming great challenges to take part, we will be telling their stories over the coming days.

As soon as the waiter returned to the table, Erik Compton dived in with both hands and wolfed down a large piece of a notoriously oily appetiser.

Dining at a popular restaurant chain, Compton raised eyebrows when he ordered a large, deep-fried onion, covered in batter, for an hors d’oeuvres.

In light of the grease, the dish should be served with an anti-cholesterol prescription and a roll of paper towels. When a friend joked that customers across the room could hear the PGA Tour player’s arteries hardening, Compton laughed and shrugged. Then he said quite a mouthful, indeed.

“I pretty much eat what I want now,” said Compton, who was two months into his rookie season on the PGA Tour at the time. “I make enough sacrifices. You have got to live life, you know?”

Now in his third full year on golf’s richest tour and improving with every season, Compton’s personal and professional pulses have never been stronger.

Although hardly a secret in the golf community, his runner-up finish at the US Open last month, in only his second appearance in a major championship, exposed millions of casual fans to his nearly incomprehensible tale.

A running gag at the US Open is that the first round often produces an unheralded front-runner and the accompanying headline, “Longshot leads Open”.

Nobody, in any professional sports sphere, has beaten longer odds than Compton, 34, who has persevered through two heart transplants and a near-fatal cardiac arrest.

In finishing behind Martin Kaymer at the game’s most-punitive major, Compton became a focal point for something other than his thick hospital chart.

A golfer on heart No 3 arrived as a player at Pinehurst No 2.

“If I had 18 birdies, it would probably be the first question that I got,” Compton said of his tale, which is part biography and part biology. “I’m used to it. I know that my heart is always going to be the story.”

Perhaps not, if his trajectory continues. Seven years after surviving a near-fatal attack when his first donor heart failed, Compton is becoming entrenched as a golfer first and a medical wonder second.

“I learnt a lot about myself, but I always knew that I was a tough competitor and that I had four solid rounds in me under extreme conditions,” he said at Pinehurst.

About the extreme part.

Golf has witnessed a good deal of medical wonderment.

Also read: 5 others who beat the odds

The legendary Ben Hogan, his hip crushed when his car was hit by a bus, was told he might never walk again but returned to win six more majors. Current women’s No 1 Stacy Lewis, who has scoliosis, plays with a metal rod in her spine.

But be it golf or otherwise, Compton is the only professional sports figure on the planet whose heart has been carried into an operating room, packed in a sealed ice chest. Twice.

Compton suffers from cardiomyopathy, which attacks the heart muscle, and his back story is enough to leave a Titleist-sized lump in anybody’s throat. That much was affirmed as the crowd saluted him, over and over, at Pinehurst.

“There are times where I get emotional,” he said. “I look over and see the crowd and see my name on the leaderboard and know what I’ve been through.”

After enduring bone saws, chest splitters, sutures and buckets of anti-rejection medications, a US Open is a comparatively simple week to survive. Although, there is no gauge on the level of stress that comes with recovering from a heart transplant while a self-employed golfer with a wife, young daughter and minimal medical cover.

Compton was stricken at age 9 and received his first donor heart at 12, from a teenage girl killed by a drunken driver.

As they wheeled him out of the hospital, he announced that he was going to become a professional baseball player. Golf has different sticks and balls, but he did not miss by much.

Despite standing only 1.72 metres and weighing 68 kilograms, Compton became a top junior player and one of the country’s best amateurs. Then he earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia, where two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson was a teammate.

In the background, though, a clock was ticking. Doctors say that donor hearts last an average of 11 years. As Compton finished school and began a mostly undistinguished pro career on secondary and satellite tours, his first heart began to fade.

Sixteen years after receiving his first transplant, in the autumn of 2007, Compton had a massive heart attack while fishing in his hometown, Miami.

Remarkably, he climbed in his car and began driving to the hospital, while sending text messages and calling friends and coaches to say his final goodbyes. He was coughing up blood and convinced that he was facing the end of his life.

He survived the episode, but his heart further deteriorated in the spring of 2008. He was on his deathbed when he received his second donor heart, this time from a former college volleyball player killed in a motorcycle accident.

After the 14-hour procedure and a couple of days under anaesthesia, Compton woke and counted 17 intravenous tubes and seven chest tubes, all wired into his withered body. Still, through the occasionally miserable recovery period, Compton was acutely aware of the luck he had received.

Indeed, he is paying it forward. Two years ago, he agreed to serve as a spokesman for Donate Life, an organisation seeking to encourage awareness about organ donation. A week after his run at Pinehurst, he visited a hospital in Connecticut and spoke privately with several patients in need of transplants.

“I want everyone to have the same chance I had to live life,” Compton said. “I would not have been able to do the things I’ve been able to do if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a heart transplant.”

For patients, the visits are inspirational. Though it sometimes creates uncomfortable and emotional moments, Compton makes hospital visits several times each season to relate his improbable tale.

After his second surgery, he wasted no time in climbing right back on his occupational horse. He entered PGA Tour qualifying school five months after his second transplant, and though he did not immediately secure a tour card, he continued to pay his dues on lesser circuits.

“For the people who don’t know the whole story and haven’t been around me, I guess I am just the guy who has had two new hearts,” he said before the PGA Tour Q-school finals in 2010.

“But when you are lying in the hospital and it’s over with, and it was over with, the fact that I am here is just crazy.”

A few months after the second surgery, he was asked if things were returning to normal, and his story was framed in eight short words: “I’m not sure I know what normal is.”

He finally secured a PGA Tour card for 2012 and has refused to go away.

After his US Open performance, he moved to No 74 in the world, climbed to US$1.7 million (Dh6.2m) in season earnings and clinched his first invitation to the PGA Championship and Masters.

“If I never played golf again for the rest of my life, I think I’ve made my mark in this game,” he said.

Compton remains a competitor who eschews excuses. He beats himself up when he plays poorly and wants to win as badly as any other player. Maybe more. About all that is left to achieve at this point is to win a PGA Tour event.

“My mum summed it up pretty well the other night,” Compton said. “She said, ‘Erik’s a golfer with two transplants, not a transplant recipient that plays golf’.”

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Updated: August 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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