October 30, 2008

Another Keeper For Compton

That final-round 68 that advanced him in Q-school was just another in a long line of continuing miracles Erik Compton is becoming well known for

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- This was a scorecard worth keeping, to be framed or mounted, or to pull out of a desk drawer someday as a reminder of one of the most amazing rounds I've witnessed in almost 30 years of chronicling golf.

The card, from Oct. 30, 2008, bears Erik Compton's name, and if I didn't score it myself, I wouldn't have believed it possible for someone to make eight birdies and one bogey in a round five months after a heart transplant; of being able to shoot a seven-under 65 from the tips at Raymond Floyd's Old Palm GC on a windy fall day in South Florida.

But this is the Erik Compton who, six days earlier, shot 68 in the final round of the first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School, who came from seven strokes back in brutal scoring conditions at Key Biscayne to advance to the second stage and turn his story into a segment on the nightly news. At Old Palm his only bogey came on his 16th hole when he tried to cut the corner of a dogleg, came within a yard of clearing it, and ended up dead against the face of a bunker. The tees he played from measured 7,401 yards. His swing coach, Jim McLean, and long-time South Florida public golf course owner Johnny Laponzina were witnesses to a score that tied the course record.

"I've been shooting nothing lately," Compton said while drinking ice water in the bar. (That's tourspeak for shooting low scores.) "It has been great."

Next week, Compton hopes that game joins him at Walt Disney World for the Children's Miracle Network Classic, the final official PGA Tour event of 2008, where he was given a sponsor's exemption, taking advantage of the fame created by his first-stage comeback. The next round of Q school will be held at Callaway Gardens, Nov. 12-15, but in the back of his mind, Compton is thinking a win at Disney would take care of that.

It was at Walt Disney World in 1997 that he beat Trevor Immelman for the Rolex Junior Championship to become the No. 1 junior in the world. This summer, he saw some of his friends from college golf, such as Camilo Villegas, win on the PGA Tour. "I can play with any of these guys," Compton says.

At the Ryder Cup, Boo Weekley concurred. He was paired with Compton during the Q School final at Bear Lakes CC in West Palm Beach in 2001. During the tournament Compton collapsed, was attended to, two groups played through, and Compton got up to finish his round and earn conditional Nationwide status.

In March at the the CA Championship at Miami's Doral Resort and Spa, Immelman and Villegas visited with Compton in player hospitality. He had just had a defibrillator put into into his heart. In April, while Immelman won the Masters, Compton was on the waiting list at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, awaiting his second transplant. He had surgery in May and in September, while Compton was petitioning the PGA Tour for permission to use a golf cart in competition, Villegas swept the last two events of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

"Before I was fired up to be this guy that didn't have a transplant, who was kind of in denial about it; who was trying to be better than everybody else even though I had it," Compton says. "Deep down in my heart I know if I didn't have physical ailments I'd be playing on the tour no problem. But I have to deal with that. My legacy is going to be there in the history of golf forever. I don't have anything more to prove."

Sitting next to him, sipping a Diet Coke, McLean retraced the steps back to four months ago, when he first saw Compton at home after the surgery, staples still in his chest, or just before that, when the heart that had been put in Erik's body at age 12 was failing, and doctors were threading wires up the veins in his arms. "It chokes you up," McLean said. "It's just so incredible what this guy has done. The fact that he's teeing it up is a phenomenal thing.

The mainstream media is all over it. ABC World News Tonight sent a crew to Miami for a piece that Charlie Gibson led with Thursday night-just as Compton was driving back down the Florida Turnpike to Miami. On Sunday he will head back up this road to the tournament outside Orlando, where news crews will be waiting. "We will have his story of courage," is how Gibson teased it during his opening read.

Producers for Katie Couric and HBO Real Sports have made inquiries to the Transplant Foundation, which is handling media requests for Compton, as he tries to figure out what who to hire as an agent. With a wife at home, expecting their first child in February, Compton has no endorsement deals, no buffer to organize and manage his career. "Oprah knows about the story," he says.

Compton did get some weird looks from other tour pros during Q school at Key Biscayne when he rode past them in a cart. He is on beta-blockers and other medications that, for a man without his condition, would be banned substances in the PGA Tour's anti-doping policy. At 28, he says that if he gets through second stage, but not the final of Q School, that we won't be following his story for 25 weeks on the Nationwide Tour. His body wouldn't hold up to that kind of grind.

This is day to day, week to week, month to month for Compton, who looks around and sees people absorbed or stressed with issues that are minor compared to a second heart transplant-or facing life not knowing how long the current heart will last.

"This is the greatest time in my life right now to go out and play, to have something to look forward to. But I try not to put myself back there and think as much as you guys in the press, that this guy had his chest open, all the test tubes and all that,'' Compton says. "It's there, but I've almost erased it. If I didn't erase it, it would be devastating."

The air is cool on this second-to-last night of October in South Florida, the lights of Miami up ahead. Erik Compton is looking through the windshield, only glancing at the rear-view mirror. The 65 at Old Palm was a confidence builder.

"I'm just going to see how far I can take it," Compton says. "I'm sure it's going to hit me soon, probably when my daughter is born, the 26th of February. The feeling is going to be awesome, to have somebody look at you, knowing she's going to eventually know me. God forbid anything happens to me, she'll know this guy went and did all this stuff, that's a whole other life, a whole other chapter in the world, that to me is really cool."