Gritty Compton Continues to Defy the Odds
By Dave Shedloski
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Erik Compton qualified for the 114th U.S. Open by doing what he does best, fighting to the finish.
Darkness had already started to stretch across Brookside Golf & Country Club when Compton embarked on a 5-for-3 playoff in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on June 2. A two-time heart transplant recipient, Compton had already played 36 holes, making birdie on the penultimate hole to get in the playoff, but he was fighting fatigue and a touch of vertigo from seasonal allergies. And when he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole, his chances dimmed.
He steadied himself on the next hole, however, sinking a 6-foot par putt to earn the last spot. It was practically dark. But Compton has been to much darker places, like in 2007, when his first donor heart began to fail. He called his mom, Eli, on the way to the hospital to tell her goodbye.
On Saturday at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, Eli watched her son march along a sunlit path into the spotlight when he shot a sterling 3-under-par 67 on the most difficult day yet in this U.S. Open to put himself into contention for the national championship.
What a story this would be if he should win. But what a story it already is that he has a chance. Playing in only his second U.S. Open and major championship, Compton tied Rickie Fowler for low round of the day, and they were the only two players under par when the field scoring average ballooned to 73.82.
Compton will begin the final round trailing Martin Kaymer by five strokes. But in some ways, Compton is way ahead of the field. “To be in the mix at the U.S. Open, it’s a dream come true,” he said.
“It’s amazing,” said Eli, who walked every step with her son on a steamy afternoon in the Sandhills. “We’ve followed him for 25 years as a golfer. But the last two holes today, I was reflecting on everything he’s been through … and I got overwhelmed.”
Compton, 34, began Saturday’s third round trailing Kaymer by 10 strokes, but things began happening at the par-5 fifth, where a driver, 4-iron and 20-foot putt gave him an eagle and put him under par for the first time in the championship. He followed with a bogey and two birdies to turn in 33, the best opening nine of the day, and two more birdies at 10 and 11 lifted him into second alone for a spell. Though he made two bogeys down the stretch, he never seemed to waver, even when his mind began to wander as he realized his name was on the leader board.
Yes, he was getting emotional, too.
“I think that there's times where I get emotional, I look over and see the crowd and see my name on the leader board and know what I've been through,” he said. “But sometimes, it can come at any golf tournament and I think everybody has that, but you’ve got to get right back into the game mode and focus and try to hit the next shot. It's a lot of fun to be inside the ropes and to be close to the lead at a major championship.
“Even the preparation this week has probably been some of the most fun golf that I've had in my career,” Compton said. “Now I understand why the big guys love the majors and consider the majors really it. I'm just really enjoying it.”
Compton was asked Saturday what it would mean to him if he were to somehow put together another stellar round and win the U.S. Open. Athletes don’t like to get ahead of themselves. Compton can be forgiven, however, for allowing himself to leap ahead. After all, he’s lived most of his life running to catch up.
“It would mean the absolute world to me,” he said. “It's a great question… If I were to win the tournament, it would be obviously something that would be extremely special, not only for me, but also for my family and for those who have been around me, and I think also for the community and those who have been through some tough times. I might just sail off and never play golf again.”
OK, that’s unlikely to happen. This is a guy who at age 12, after his first transplant, still believed he was going to be a Major League Baseball player. He was close. He’s certainly becoming a major player, as he is poised to perhaps post his third top-five finish of the year.
A few days before competing in the sectional qualifier, Compton received a lift at the Memorial Tournament from host Jack Nicklaus, who told his fellow South Florida resident that his game would suit Pinehurst. Compton missed the cut at Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village Golf Club, but he was buoyed by the little pep talk and it carried over to that long day at Brookside.
“He [Nicklaus] said that if I got here, I would have a special week,” Compton said with a wide smile. “So maybe it's just kind of a self-fulfilling thing that I brought on myself. But I felt like I was going to have a great week this week.”
Indeed, he didn’t need the legendary Golden Bear to tell him that. He knew it deep down in his heart.
“My attitude suits a U.S. Open,” Compton said, “because I don’t ever give up.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.