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Charles Schwab Challenge

Erik Compton, on the leader board at Colonial, has a story in perseverance that doesn't get old

May 27, 2021

Erik Compton putts on the 18th hole during the first round of the Charles Schwab Challenge, where he closed out an opening 65, the lowest score in a PGA Tour event since August 2015.

Tom Pennington

Erik Compton’s heart rate soared during the opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge on Thursday. Normally, the 41-year-old averages a little more than 100 beats per minute each week on the Korn Ferry Tour; at Colonial, the average rose past 140 beats.

“You’re playing for different stuff out here,” Compton said. “It’s no offense to the Korn Ferry Tour. This is the biggest stage in golf and you want to perform, so I do put a little bit more pressure on myself, but I handled it well.”

Indeed.

Playing on a sponsor’s exemption and making just his third start on the PGA Tour since 2016, Compton made five birdies and no bogeys en route to a 65, his lowest score on the PGA Tour since a 62 in the first round of the Wyndham Championship in 2015. He's just two strokes off the lead of Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia.

Even more remarkable? He’s doing it on his third heart after having undergone his first transplant at age 12 and his second at 28.

Compton’s story has been told often through the years. Still, it never ceases to amaze. He’s believed to be one of only two athletes to compete professionally after having undergone a heart transplant (cattle roper Ryan Rochlitz is the other). And despite the most recent procedure having been more than a decade ago, he still needs to take around two dozen pills per day and manage other elements of his health, a task that’s been made more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to sum it up, but it’s a lot of work, and I’m a fighter, I’m a grinder,” he said. “I put one foot in front of the other. I’m just blessed to be alive really. Spent most of my life with somebody else’s hearts. It’s a challenge, but I do the best that I can.”

Seven years ago, Compton nearly was the best during the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he finished runner-up to Martin Kaymer. It was the pinnacle of Compton’s career, which includes a lone win on the then-Nationwide Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour) in 2011. But the years since that U.S. Open haven’t been as kind.

Compton lost his PGA Tour card in 2016 and his game continued to decline amid the distraction of a long, difficult divorce in 2018 from his first wife, with whom he shares a daughter.

Eventually, he moved on, refocused his practice and got remarried earlier this year. Along the way, he came close to getting back to the PGA Tour, most notably in 2019 when he shared the 54-hole lead at the Bahamas Great Abaco Classic but carded a 10 halfway through the final round and ended the year narrowly missing out on finishing in the top 25 of that circuit’s point standings. Then, the pandemic hit in 2020 and promotions from the KFT to the PGA Tour were put on a hold another year with the schedules on both tours having been significantly impacted.

This year, Compton is off to a sluggish start on the KFT. In nine tournaments, his best finish is a T-28 at the Veritex Bank Championship in April. He’s also currently 119th in the season-long points race. Still, he said he feels good about his game of late. It showed on Thursday.

An elite ball-striker and gifted with a strong short game, Compton showed flashes of his former self at Colonial, a small ballpark where accuracy and touch on and around the greens is at a premium. He got off to a quick start with birdies on his first two holes, getting up and down on the par-5 first, then making a six-footer on the second. Two holes later, he added another, pouring in a 16-footer, before he stuck his approach on 12 to two feet and his tee shot on the par-3 17th to three feet to set up two more easy birdies.

His par saves weren’t so bad, either—a 16-footer on the fourth, a nifty up and down from the short side on the par-3 eighth and an 18-footer on 14. On the day, Compton gained more than 5 1/2 strokes on the field on the greens.

“I've been working with Phil Long with Access One and grinding away and trying to get that right,” he said of his putting. “I think that’s been the missing part of my game. I’m always a scrambler, so my chipping is good and if I can hit a few more fairways, I think I’ll have a good week.”

A win at Colonial of course would change everything for Compton. But the veteran knows there’s still a long way to go. He’s just happy to have a chance to see what he can do on the tour he’s pining to get back to one more time.

“You know, visualizing what you’re going to do is really part of the fun,” he said. “I’ve said it before when I was in the hospital that I superimposed my head on other players when I was watching them, and now I'm here and seeing the same guys. It’s neat.”