Erik Compton's story conjures awe: 'He's Superman'

Jul 8 2011 - 3:53pm

MIAMI -- Even though Erik Compton disagrees, his story is a made-for-Hollywood motion picture waiting to happen.

"I don't know. I don't think there will be a movie. I think movies tend to ... you have to have something that's maybe a little bit more unrealistic," said Compton last week before the AT&T National in Newtown Square, Pa., where he shot 76-76 and missed the cut. "Maybe if they make a fictional story and have me winning three U.S. Opens or something."

But it's hard to think of anything more unlikely than Compton's story, and there's little doubting this synopsis would sell: A two-time heart transplant recipient overcomes all odds to fulfill a lifelong goal of playing on the PGA Tour.

"Absolutely, it should be an inspirational movie for everybody, it's a hell of a story," said Charlie DeLucca, who holds three key positions in the South Florida golf scene: President of First Tee Miami, head of the Dade Amateur Golf Association and director of Melreese Golf Course. And he first coached Compton when Compton was 8 years old.

"You have to believe in God watching him, or you have to believe in something," DeLucca said. "You can't be human to do the things he does. He's Superman."

Said Phil Smith, Compton's caddie, friend of almost 15 years and fellow graduate of Miami's Palmetto High: "His story certainly stands to be a movie one day, because it's not something you would sit down and say, 'Oh, I've got a great idea, let's write a story about this' and just make that up. It's even hard to believe someone could write fiction and come up with that on their own. It's too remarkable. Too special."

The thing is, Compton's journey on the PGA Tour is only just beginning. After "getting the monkey off (his) back" and winning his first professional event, the Nationwide Tour's Mexico Open in Leon on June 26, Compton all but secured his PGA Tour card for the 2012 season. He won $126,000 to give him $215,709 for the season, moving him to No. 2 on the Nationwide money list -- the top 25 finishers at the end of the year earn their cards, and last year's final qualifier earned $209,259.

But if Compton could write his movie's tagline, it might not be quite as awe-inspiring, as his autobiographical abstract would read something like this: A professional golfer's game prospers in his 30s, when he realizes his dream of earning his PGA Tour card after 10 tough years of trying, which included a second heart transplant.

"Right now, his story headline is still, 'Golfer with heart transplant wins.' That's great and it inspires a lot of people," Smith said. "At some point, though, I think he wants people to say, 'That's Erik Compton, one of the top golfers in the world. And, oh by the way, he's a heart transplant recipient.' "

Compton, 31, has closely crept toward getting a chance at rewriting his script. He has played in 29 PGA Tour events, mostly relying on sponsor exemptions because of his medical background, but now he has paved his own path. As Smith said, "There's no asterisk there anymore."

"There are two ways of looking at it, but everybody tries to combine the two," Compton said. "I'm an athlete, but I'm also a transplant recipient. I look at it that way. I received a heart transplant. I'm an athlete. The correlation is the obstacles I have to deal with in each. ... I know that I'm going to get attention because of having the two heart transplants. But I'm not so much of a sideshow freak anymore."

Now he's at center stage, starring in the leading role.

Try this for a captivating plot: At age 9, Compton was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens and enlarges the heart muscle, making it difficult to pump blood, and had his first transplant in 1992.

After a stellar high school and college career, Compton adjusted to the pro game and started playing his best golf in 2006 and 2007, when he made 20 of 40 Nationwide cuts. But that's when the replacement heart stopped working properly and he sustained a heart attack, which sent him to another transplant surgery the following year.

Golf wasn't in the picture any longer.

It was about living.

Compton sold his clubs. After the second transplant, he now-famously said, "I've been dead -- twice."

But Compton started playing again four months later, and in his fifth month back, he got a sponsor's exemption to play in the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic and tied for 60th.

Now, just more than three years removed from the second surgery, Compton's first pro win punctuated a tumultuous trip down the fairway of life.

"My life has definitely not been boring," Compton said. "The climb is always sweeter than being at the top. It's the journey that's the best part. To get through everything makes it that much tastier."

Compton's climb -- and his story -- became even more remarkable with the triumph in Mexico.

Comfortable with himself and his background, Compton is at ease with his game and playing the best golf of his career. And with his Tour card, Compton should play even more loosely on the links. He won't have to worry playing every week to make the money list.

"His swing is what it is. He's not trying to change it. He's not searching for anything," Smith said. "He's a veteran now, and he understands what he has and how to make it work for him. From now on, he's not the guy trying to make the Tour, he's the guy that's saying, 'Screw it, I'm here to win.' The fear is gone because everything is secure for next year."

Smith and DeLucca were quick to point out that Compton has been successful at every level he has played: He was the top-ranked player on the junior circuit, he was a two-time All-American at the University of Georgia, he won several events on the Canadian Tour and now he has been victorious on the Nationwide Tour.

The next step is winning on the PGA Tour. There is no doubt that Compton's growing fan base -- what his closest followers call his family -- will be tracking his journey.

Since the Mexico Open wasn't on TV, DeLucca had to track Compton's hole-by-hole progress on the Internet. When Compton reached 14-under on the eighth hole, DeLucca called Michael Hanzman, Compton's longtime friend who has supported him financially and asked for nothing in return. Where was Hanzman? The only fitting place: a movie theater.

"I called him, and he was out in Colorado seeing a movie," DeLucca said. "He answers, whispering, 'Hi Charlie. What, Erik just tied for the lead? I can't talk, but call and let me know how it's going.' When Erik finished at 17-under in the lead, I called him and he was out of the movie theater in the lobby on his cellphone watching the score. It was absolutely amazing. It was phone calls everywhere. It was one call after the other, screaming and yelling. Everybody trying to see how he's doing, calling each other, absolute celebration. Jubilation."

What Compton has been through, in golf terms, DeLucca said, would be like teeing up on No. 1, down 18 holes, with his life on the line. And then doing it a second time.

"It's hard to hit a golf ball with a hangnail -- have you ever tried that?" DeLucca said. "How about hitting a golf ball with staples in your chest holding it together? Or hitting a golf ball while needing medication to keep you alive? And you're doing this every day.

"What he's achieved in golf, no one has achieved. If you weigh all of that, he's the No. 1 player in the world. For sure, he's the No. 1 person. Heck, forget about the No.?1 golfer, he's got to be the No. 1 athlete in the world to do what he's doing."

It's all a dream come true for Compton, who might not say he belongs in the movies, but realizes his story's inspirational impact.

"You've got to be a big dreamer," he said. "It's not often someone goes through that, with the chances seriously stacked against them.

"It's like a Cinderella story."

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