Honda ClassicFebruary 27, 2019

Erik Compton in a good place, 'good enough to be out here,' on eve of return to PGA Tour

Michael Cohen

Erik Compton is playing in the Honda Classic that begins on Thursday. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Erik Compton was barely awake on Wednesday morning when his cell phone buzzed. It was 6:30 a.m. and Tiger Woods was texting.

Woods isn’t playing in his hometown tournament, the Honda Classic, this week — a byproduct of the revamped PGA Tour schedule — so he wanted to wish Compton good luck.

“He said congrats on getting in and have a good week,” said Compton, who Monday qualified for the Honda after shooting a seven-under 65 that included an eagle on the par-5 18th at nearby Banyan Cay Resort to share medalist honors and earn a spot in the field at PGA National.

The day before Woods texted, Compton was making his way to the driving range at the Honda when he asked Jason Kokrak how he and his wife were doing. “We’ve got two kids now,” responded Kokrak, who in turn asked about Compton’s daughter, Petra. “She’s 10,” Compton said, the two sharing a laugh about how long it had been since they’d seen one another.

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If it feels like a long time since you’ve heard Compton’s name on the PGA Tour, it has been. The last time the 39-year-old two-time heart transplant recipient played in a tour event was 2016, before he lost his card and was relegated to golf’s minor league circuit, the Web.com Tour, for the past two-plus years.

“Someone said to me that the Web.com Tour prepares you for the PGA Tour,” Compton said after getting in a dozen holes of practice before taking some much needed rest. “I don’t know about that. It’s another world out here.”

That’s putting it mildly. In short, the difference between the two tours is about the same as the difference between playing at Yankee Stadium and playing in Scranton, Pa., where the Bronx Bombers' triple-A affiliate is located.

Getting back to golf’s version of the big leagues can prove just as difficult, though.

For one, the Web is rife with all sorts of players, from young studs who hit it a mile and will be headliners on the PGA Tour for years to come (see: Champ, Cameron as a recent example), to wily veterans who have spent their careers bouncing back and forth between both circuits.

Compton is neither of those. At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, he’s dwarfed by guys like Champ and Brooks Koepka, someone whom he remembers playing with years ago, before Koepka was a three-time major champion, one of the sport’s best players and a behemoth. The game Compton plays is vastly different. Though he averaged 301 yards off the tee last season, that was only good enough to rank 97th on the Web.com Tour. Accuracy — he’s hit over 88 percent of his fairways and better than 72 percent of greens in regulation this season — and a tidy short game are what he relies on. He also has just a lone victory to his resume, in 2011 on the Web.com Tour

“I’m a tactical player,” he said. “But it still works out here. I’m good enough to be out here.”

There was a time when he wasn’t so sure.

After making it to the PGA Tour for the first time in 2012 — just four years removed from his second heart transplant — he spent the next four years playing on golf’s biggest stage, his crescendo coming at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where he improbably tied for second with Rickie Fowler.

Things went quickly downhill from there, however, as Compton missed 12 cuts in 24 starts on the PGA Tour in 2015-16 and he lost his card. Away from the course, he was also entangled in a difficult divorce and at one point found himself living at his parents’ house.

Then there were the physical complications of being a guy on his third heart. Random bouts of illness at times left him bed-ridden, or sent him to the hospital.

“I wouldn’t say I'm great friends with [Tiger] but I think he has a lot of respect for what I've been through, and I can understand what he has to go through physically and a little bit mentally,” Compton said. “It’s not easy when your body’s not working and when you have personal issues. It’s hard to play golf.”

At one point, Compton was so disillusioned he contemplated retirement. In 21 starts in 2017, he missed eight cuts and withdrew from three other events. Thinking he was out of status, he sent a check to the tour for q-school. They sent it back to him, informing him that he had another year of eligibility on the Web.

Away from golf things started to improve, too. Compton bought a house, settled into a relationship and was able to focus on his game again.

“He’s a happy person now,” said his longtime coach Charlie DeLuca. “It’s hard to play when you’re not in a good place. If you don’t have that foundation, golf doesn't work. He's in a great place.

“He’s been working his ass off this year, striking the ball unbelievable and just hyper focused on what he does really well. I don’t think he’s hit it this good in years. It’s the best he’s playing since Pinehurst.”

All the time players talk about their game “being close.” Sometimes, it’s actually true.

Last month, Compton held the 54-hole lead at The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic before imploding with an 83 in the final round, a disastrous, windswept day in which he made a 10 on a hole. But he didn’t beat himself up over it.

He’s been hitting it so well this year, in fact, that his mom is the one who told him he should try to Monday qualify for the Honda, despite it being far and away the hardest event to Monday into given the quality of the field with so many players calling South Florida home.

Not that Compton needed any convincing. Teeing off in one of the first few groups of the day he racked up six birdies and an eagle, the latter coming after he smoked a 3-iron through the breeze to a back right pin with water right of the green on the par-5 18th and drained the slippery downhill putt.

He booked a room at PGA National knowing the score was enough to get him in.

“I feel great,” he said. “My energy is good and my game is good.”

So much so that Compton is hoping he gets into the field for next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Woods has won eight times and will be in the field.

First thing’s first, though.

“Tiger said why don’t you just focus on this week,” Compton said. “It’s nice to not be forgotten. I’m still here and I can still play.”