Erik Compton isn't done chasing his dream
Erik Compton was in his car Sunday afternoon, driving across Florida from Sarasota—where he had just finished T-47 in the Web.com Tour’s LECOM Suncoast Classic—to his home in Miami.
“I’ll have time to do my laundry, re-pack and then wake up at 2:30 to catch a flight to Puerto Rico,” he said with a laugh. “I hope my eyes will be open on the first tee.”
Compton was pushing himself to try and qualify for the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open. While the tour’s stars will be in Mexico this week for the WGC-Mexico Championship—with more than $10 million on the line and no cut—the tour’s non-stars will tee it up in Puerto Rico for a $3 million purse.
Compton was hoping he could be one of the non-stars in that field. “It’s 19 for one,” said the 39-year-old Florida native, referencing the fact that 19 players had entered the Monday qualifier with one spot in the field available. “Odds are against me, but heck, I’m used to that. I’ve done it before, maybe I can do it again. It’s been a while since I got a start on the PGA Tour.”
And it would continue to be so, Compton shooting a one-under 71 at TPC Dorado Beach on Monday that left him tied for fourth, three strokes back of medalist Alexander Hicks.
Compton’s last PGA Tour start was in October 2016, when he missed the cut at the Sanderson Farms Classic. He had just lost his full status on the PGA Tour after finishing 173rd on the money list that year in 24 starts. Even though he finished tied for second in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, he has no status on the tour currently and can only get into a field by Monday qualifying or by receiving sponsor’s exemptions.
“There are times when I feel forgotten,” Compton admitted. “Then, other times I see people wondering why I withdrew from an event or questioning whether I’m really still committed to playing. I guess the good news is that they’re noticing that I am playing. Believe me, I’m committed, I’m grinding.”
The questions about his commitment date to the end of the 2016 season when he went to the four-event Web.com Tour Final Series and failed to play his way back to the PGA Tour. Walking to his car after dropping from a tie for sixth to a tie for 24th during the last round of the Nationwide Children’s Championships in Columbus, Ohio, Compton told Golf Digest’s Dave Shedloski: “I’m thinking about packing it in. I just can’t get it done anymore.” A moment later he added, “I’ve become a three-round player.”
The last comment was important and instructive. Although people in golf seem to have somehow forgotten, Compton has been through two heart transplants—one at 12 and one at 28. His profile on the PGA Tour’s website makes no mention of the two transplants although it does say that he visits severely ill children almost every week he plays on tour—PGA or Web.com.
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Compton takes major doses of medication every day of his life—often between 20 and 30 pills. His meds are constantly being adjusted by doctors who monitor his heart regularly to try to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted organ. The meds affect him in different ways, but fatigue has often been a problem during his career. Compton doesn’t like to complain about it, but there have been times when he has been forced to withdraw from tournaments—even when playing well—because he’s simply too sick on a given morning to play 18 holes of golf.
“Right now, I feel good,” he said Sunday. “In fact, I’m playing well. I’m hitting the ball very well, but struggling with the putter. The difference between succeeding out here [on the Web.com] and the big tour isn’t very much. The golf courses are different; you never know what you’re going to get from week-to-week. But you have to play very well out here to succeed, same as on the PGA Tour.”
It didn’t take Compton long after his “I may pack it in,” comment to realize he had no desire to pack it in. He still loved to play and compete and was a long way from being ready to become a full-time motivational speaker.
“I was in a very bad place in my life when I said that,” Compton said. “I was going through a divorce, and I’d played badly all year. Did the divorce affect my golf? Probably, but a lot of guys go through those kinds of issues.”
But NO ONE in golf—check that, no one in professional sports—has ever gone through the health issues Compton has faced, and still faces. He had his first transplant at 12 after contracting viral cardiomyopathy, which ended his career as a promising young baseball player. Instead, he became a very good golfer, going to the University of Georgia and then turning pro after two years of college, nervous his pro career would be played on borrowed time.
Compton was working his way up the professional ladder when he had a heart attack in the fall of 2007 while in his car. He drove to the emergency room and called his parents to say goodbye before being taken into surgery, because he thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t survive.
He did and then had to wait six months until doctors could find a heart to replace the one that had failed after 16 years. He knows he’s likely to face another crisis at some point in his 40s, but refuses to obsess about it.
“All I can do is worry about how I feel today,” he said. “I have to go in for a heart check-up again soon, but that’s just part of my life. For now, I’m trying to focus on my daughter [Petra] and my golf.”
His golf steadily improved after the second transplant. He won the Mexico Open on the Web.com Tour in 2011 and that helped him finish 13th on the money list for the year, elevating him to the PGA Tour in 2012. He finished 163rd on the money list that year, but finished T-7 in the Q-school finals that year (arguably his most impressive performance since he had to play six rounds) to get his status back for 2013.
“There are times when I feel forgotten. Then, other times I see people wondering why I withdrew from an event or questioning whether I’m really still committed to playing. I guess the good news is that they’re noticing that I am playing. Believe me, I’m committed, I’m grinding.”
His performance at the Open at Pinehurst in 2014, helped him finish 64th on the money list with just almost $1.8 million in official money and allowed him to live his dream of playing in the Masters. He made the cut there in 2015 and finished T-51.
But his health soon became an issue again. The doctors kept adjusting his meds to lessen the side-affects, and the grind of tour life made it difficult for him to play with any consistency.
“I always knew I was never going to be one of those guys who’s on a leader board every single week,” he said. “But I can pop up there every once in a while, especially on difficult golf courses when I’m feeling good. That last year still on tour  was just difficult in a lot of ways.”
In addition to his “normal” health issues, Compton had a bout with gout (initially mis-diagnosed) that led to a serious problem with arthritis in his foot. By the time the year ended, he was a hot mess.
After he and his wife, Barbara, separated, Compton lived over his parents’ garage for a while. He had made a lot of money during his five full years on the tour, but much of it—and his house—went away in the divorce. Now, he has a new house, a new girlfriend and spends a good deal of time with Petra—who’s now 10. She was with him this past weekend in Sarasota.
Five years ago, after he and Rickie Fowler finished tied for second at Pinehurst, Compton was a media darling. There were calls about potential documentaries on his life, and he became the “Tuesday story” for the local media at almost every tour stop. It had been that way early in his career, when he often received sponsor’s exemptions (30 in all) before he was an exempt player because of the uniqueness of his story.
Now, it seems as if tournament directors who once saw him as a potential ticket-seller, have forgotten about him. He’s stopped writing to ask for exemptions because he knows what the answer will be.
But he’s a long way from packing it in. A year ago, he finished 59th on the Web.com Tour regular-season money list, with three top-15 finishes, including a T-3 in Portland.
In the second tournament of 2019, he shot 69-65 the first two rounds of the Bahamas Great Abaco Classic to take the lead. He was still tied for the lead after three rounds but then blew to a final-round 83, dropping him to a tie for 25th.
“I don’t think it was fatigue,” he said. “It’s more about anxiety because I never know day-to-day how I’m going to feel. That round was very disappointing to say the least. I got off to a bad start, two three-putts the first four holes in the wind. Then, it went completely bad on the eighth hole.”
Compton hit his drive way left on that tee and ended up making a quintuple-bogey 10 after taking two unplayable lies on the hole. The rest of the day was almost as disastrous.
“But I know I can still play,” he said. “That’s what I took away from that week. I’ve already beaten the odds in my life in a lot of ways. I don’t think I’m done doing that yet.”
And so, even if nobody is noticing these days, Erik Compton keeps grinding. There’s no give-up in him. If there was, he probably wouldn’t still be around.