By RANDALL MELL Senior Writer, GolfChannel.com
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Erik Compton put together the most remarkable performance in the history of the U.S. Open Thursday at Pebble Beach.
Forget Johnny Miller’s 63 in the final round at Oakmont in ‘73.
Or Hogan’s return from a nearly fatal car accident to win at Merion in ’50.
Or Tiger Woods’ victory on a blown out knee at Torrey Pines two years ago.
Or even Francis Ouimet’s upset of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club in Brookline in 1913.
The U.S. Open was witness to its first real miracle here at Pebble Beach the moment Compton put his peg in the ground before his first tee shot.
Compton’s overcome more than any man who’s ever played the 110 renditions of this championship.
That’s why the 77 he signed for didn’t add up.
It’s why it made no sense that five hours of the most awe inspiring golf ever played could be summed up so unremarkably.
It’s why it didn’t seem fair that his heroic effort could leave him so desperate to make the cut.
“I’m so angry,” Compton said. “I wasn’t nervous out there. I felt comfortable. I just wish I had gotten off to a better start because I’ve got a lot of work left.”
What’s behind is quickly turned away from to focus on what’s ahead. It’s a way of life for Compton.
While courage is normally too large a word to describe what it takes to play any golf shot, it fits the nature of every shot Compton’s ever played, since the day he received a new heart as a 12-year-old and became the youngest heart transplant recipient at the time at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Golf’s the sport he took up under his doctors’ watchful eyes to help him recover.
It’s the game that makes his new heart seem so mighty to all those fearful souls who wonder what their lives will be like after a transplant only to have doctors tell them about the rich and wondrous life Compton’s lived after his transplant.
Check that, after his transplants.
Because everyone who’s followed Compton’s journey to this U.S. Open knows he’s barely two years removed from his second heart transplant after a heart attack nearly killed him in the fall of ’07.
Compton, 30, might have left the course Thursday frustrated by his round of three birdies, five bogeys and two double bogeys, but his longtime swing coach and friend Jim McLean understood how the round wasn’t distinguished by the nature of the shots played but by the nature of the man playing the shots.
“He’s my hero,” McLean said. “When I saw him lying in the hospital after the last transplant, I didn’t think he would make it. God’s honest truth, the doctors told him playing professional golf was out. It would be too much for him.”
Too much pressure on the new heart, too much angst in the touring pro’s life, and yet five months after the second heart transplant Compton teed it up in a first stage PGA Tour qualifying tournament.
It’s why miraculous, for the first time, is appropriate in describing shots being played in a U.S. Open.
It’s why McLean’s cell phone started humming after Compton chipped in for birdie at his second hole in his first major championship.
With Compton making his way to the next tee, McLean dug the phone out of his pocket.
“I’m not supposed to have my phone on the course,” McLean said. “But look at this.”
McLean showed the message freshly sent from fellow Miami native Cristie Kerr, the LPGA pro who grew up marveling at Compton’s perseverance.
“How do you not cry watching Erik Compton play in the U.S. Open?” Kerr texted from the Shoprite LPGA Classic, where she was preparing to play in Galloway, N.J. “My God, it’s so unbelievable.”
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els shared the same sentiment with Erik’s father, Peter, during a practice round Wednesday at Pebble Beach. Els called Erik before the U.S. Open and asked if he would like to play a practice round together. They also played a practice round at the Memorial two weeks ago. During Wednesday’s work, Els lagged behind Erik at the ninth hole and waved Peter to come walk with him down the middle of the fairway.
“Ernie wanted me to know how much he admires Erik,” Peter said.
Those words made Peter’s heart swell. They meant so much to a father. The friendship Els has struck up with Compton means so much to the Compton family.
“Ernie said he’s been following my story since I first played at Doral,” Compton said.
When Els won at Doral in ’02, Compton was in the field, playing on a sponsor’s exemption.
“I tell Ernie he’s my hero, and he always says, `No, no, you’re my hero,’” Compton said.
That’s what made their crossing paths so notable in Thursday’s first round. The fourth and 17th tees at Pebble Beach intersect. As fate would have it, Els and Tiger Woods were coming off the 16th green when Compton was teeing it up at No. 4. Els and Woods stopped alongside Compton and watched him hit his tee shot.
“I was 5-over there, and Ernie gave me a look, like, `Let’s get it going,’” Compton said.
Compton strafed a 4-iron to the middle of the fourth fairway, his 13th hole of the first round, but he couldn’t spark a run down the home stretch. It left Compton so angry he marched to the driving range after his round to work on hitting a draw because his fade got him in too much trouble.
“I get so competitive, I want to win so badly, sometimes I think I want it too much,” Compton said. “It’s hard to appreciate what I’ve achieved when I’m out there on the course. I’m pushing so hard.”
That kind of stubborn determination is what makes Compton’s family and friends marvel.
Compton’s wife, Barbara, faithfully followed Erik’s adventures Thursday. She says their 16-month-old daughter, Petra Ella, is just like her father.
“They both want to show you how determined they can be, how tough they are,” Barbara said. “You try to take Petra’s hand, and she won’t let you.”
Christian Compton, Erik’s older brother by three years, knows that stubborn determination. Christian is a project manager for Royal Caribbean, the cruise line. He helped build the Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship in the world. He surprised his brother flying in this week from Finland to watch the U.S. Open.
“I can still remember so clearly the day we first learned Erik needed a heart transplant,” Christian said. “I remember Erik, he was 12, coming home from the doctor with this huge bag of toys, saying how lucky we were to have all these toys, and I remember him saying, `Come on, let’s play.’ And I remember seeing my mother cry when he said it, and I knew something was really wrong.”
The whole family’s together at Pebble Beach this week.
Eli Compton, Erik’s mother, devoted herself to the work of helping families needing organ transplants after Erik’s first surgery. She’s the executive director of the Transplant Foundation of Miami.
While so many fans of Erik tell Eli how they admire his fearless nature, she knows that’s not the true nature of his gift. Erik knows fear. He knows it all too well. She sees how he’s learned to live with fear as a constant companion. His special gift, she knows, is how he keeps figuring out how to beat it.
“Erik gets scared,” Eli says. “He has palpitations, and they do make him afraid.”
This week, fans are marveling at the vital looking young man who’s overcome so much to play in his first major championship, but they can’t fully appreciate just how much. They can’t see how far Erik’s really come because they don’t know how low he’s really been and the risks that lie ahead.
After making the cut at the Memorial on a sponsor’s exemption two weeks ago, Erik shot 82 in the final round. He was exhausted and frustrated. He was also so down about his finish he was going to skip the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier he was scheduled to play the next day.
“He called home and told us he was going to quit golf,” Eli said. “We were so concerned about him, but, of course, he played and qualified. I tell you, two weeks ago, we couldn’t have imagined being here at this U.S. Open.”
That’s what made the news that he advanced through the U.S. Open qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, in a playoff so emotional.
“My dad was crying on the phone when he told me in Finland,” Christian said.
This U.S. Open seems an impossible reality when the family thinks back to the heart attack that led to Erik’s second surgery. He was stricken in a hospital waiting room in Miami, where he drove himself upon feeling ill. He’d probably be dead if he had been anywhere else when the heart attack struck.
“Waking up in intensive care after the last heart transplant, with all these tubes coming in and out of him, with all these monitors beeping, in that time when you're first trying to bring your mind and body back, it was very tough on him,” Eli said. “At one point, he was bent over, really struggling to support himself, or move, and he says, ‘I can't believe I’ve put myself through this again.’ It was one of those moments when it’s so bad, you don’t think it’s worth it, but it was a short moment. When your mind and body do come back, you realize how happy you are to be alive.”
This getting back up to fight, it isn’t just Erik’s story. It’s the whole Compton family story. Christian broke his neck back when he was in college in a snowboarding accident. He was temporarily paralyzed, though he’s nearly completely recovered, some minor nerve damage the only remnant of the frightening fall.
“In my family, a broken neck’s not enough to complain about,” Christian said.
Eli’s a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago.
“We know what it is to be afraid, to be crazy with fear sometimes, but we’ve learned that you can’t let it take over your life,” Eli said.
Erik’s story is a hopeful one for so many folks who are afraid as they wait for their own heart transplants. He’s an example of what’s possible.
Christian said he was heartened walking among the gallery Thursday.
“Erik’s raised so much awareness about heart transplants and the importance of organ donors,” Christian said. “Everywhere I go, you hear people saying, `Oh there’s the kid who’s had the heart transplants.’ It’s funny how the story grows, though. I heard this one guy say, `Oh that’s the guy who’s had five hearts.’”
For the record, it’s three hearts, including Erik’s original, and that’s the number that makes Compton’s performance in Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open the greatest this championship’s ever seen, not the number he scrawled on his scorecard.
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