Erik Compton is working on his third heart, but that doesn't keep him from being confident (OK, maybe a little cocky) about winning on tour.
Erik Compton knew he was in trouble even before he got to the first tee. He had known that playing five weeks in a row was risky. Only on rare occasions does he play more than three tournaments in a row, but he had played so well earlier this year—including a career-best tie for fourth at the Honda Classic—that he thought he could get through it.
He wanted to play in Houston because he'd gotten one of those phone calls he gets all the time, the ones that are an important part of his life.
This one was about a 13-year-old girl who lives outside Houston. Anna King was waiting to undergo a heart transplant. Compton is one of a handful of people in the world who could know what Anna was going through, because, 21 years ago, he went through it. And five years ago, he went through it again.
"She was in exactly the place I was in when I was 12," he says. "I like to talk to people when I can in that situation because I want them to understand where they're going. It's a very scary time, but I can tell them first-hand that they're going to be OK."
The plan was for Anna to watch Compton play his first round and then meet with him for a talk and some picture-taking. As Compton warmed up, he had that feeling of dread he'd experienced many times before: He was too sick to play.
"If I withdrew from every golf tournament I play in when I'm not feeling well, I wouldn't finish half of them," he says. "That's why I always give it a shot, because sometimes I do start to feel better. When I won the Rolex [Junior Classic in 1997, the year before he was named the player of the year], I didn't think I could make it to the first tee. My dad said, 'Play one hole. If you still feel sick, we'll go home.' I played one hole, then another. I got through it. But it doesn't always happen that way. Some days it gets worse."
This was one of those days. "Any other day, I'd have just WD'd on the spot," he says, "but I couldn't do it. I had to finish. I didn't want Anna to see how badly I felt. I'm where she wants to go. I didn't want that thought to scare her."
He finished the round—shooting 80. He told Anna it had been one of those days, that he'd played a lot of golf—good golf—the previous month and just didn't have it on that day, something that happens to all golfers. "What separates me from other transplant survivors is that I play golf well," he says. "I know that I can inspire people to keep going at times. I want to do that every chance I get."
Anna King's Facebook page includes a photo of her with Compton that day soon after he'd signed his scorecard. Compton has his arm around her and is grinning as if he's having the time of his life.
"My head," he said later, "felt like it was about to explode."
DREAMS, AND NIGHTMARESErik Compton is a dreamer. Some of the dreams are similar to those of any 33-year-old in his second full year on the PGA Tour: He dreams of winning a tournament, playing in the Masters, winning a major championship—even being the best player in the world.
When it comes to golf there are those—many, in fact—who describe him as cocky. "Supremely confident," says Camilo Villegas, a longtime friend going back to their college days when Villegas played at Florida and Compton at Georgia. "I think that's a nicer way to put it. He's always walked onto a golf course believing he can beat anyone."
But Compton has other dreams, too—the kind he would like to blot from his memory, and often does.
"I guess when you've been through what I've been through, you learn to do that," he says. "It wouldn't be a lot of fun to carry around some of the dreams I've had. I know about a lot of them because my friends remember them and tell me about them sometimes."
One of those friends is Dominic Fraser, a boyhood pal who spent most of two months with Compton at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami five years ago while Compton was awaiting his second transplant. Fraser remembers a lot of the dreams that Compton does not.
"I remember him telling me one morning that he knew what angels looked like, and it wasn't like I thought," Fraser says. "He said he'd dreamed there were four of them standing behind him, two on each side, and they looked, for the most part, like Shaquille O'Neal—only with all sorts of blood and stuff on them. He was right: It wasn't what I had pictured when I thought of angels."
Last year, before the first round of the Honda Classic, Compton had another one of those dreams. The way he told it that night—after shooting a three-under-par 67 even though he had awakened that day feeling a little sick and a little scared—he had walked onto the first tee in the dream ready to play. "It was a beautiful day," he said. "There were lots of people around the tee, and I walked up there, and the starter introduced me. I put my tee into the ground, stood up to take a practice swing and had a heart attack and died."
He paused in the re-telling. "That would have been embarrassing."