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Kaymer may have won the U.S. Open, but Erik Compton won the hearts of golf fans

Two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & C.C. in Village of Pinehurst, N.C. on Sunday, June 15, 2014.
Two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton watches his tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & C.C. in Village of Pinehurst, N.C. on Sunday, June 15, 2014.
© USGA/Hunter Martin

Germany’s Martin Kaymer romped to a wire-to-wire win in the 2014 United States Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club today, adding a Fathers Day victory to his Mothers Day win at The Players in May. As gracious and deserving as this young man is, though, the man who won the hearts of the American golf community this past week is Erik Compton.

Compton, 34, more than lived up to the reputation of the mascot of his alma mater, the University of Georgia, holding on with bulldog tenacity to post his best-ever finish in a PGA Tour event in the most important event on the calendar, the United States Open.

Compton’s story is well-known to most golf fans. At the age of 12 he received a heart transplant after being diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition which inflames and weakens the heart muscle, reducing its ability to pump blood. Despite a regimen of drugs and follow-on treatments that resulted in a swollen face and extremities, he became an accomplished junior and college golfer, and was a member of the 2001 USA Walker Cup Team.

In 2008, at the age of 28, Compton’s donor heart began to fail, and he went into the hospital for another transplant – after having driven himself to the emergency room when he felt the onset of symptoms. Remarkably, just months later he qualified for his PGA Tour card at the Tour’s Q-School qualifying tournament, and five months after his second transplant finished T-60 in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic on the PGA Tour.

In the intervening years he has played in a number of PGA Tour events, including the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he failed to make the cut, as well as playing on the Tour. In 2011 he won the Tour’s Mexico Open, his fourth professional win, after three earlier wins on the Canadian Tour in the early 2000’s.

Compton opened the tournament with a 2-over 72, about a stroke better than the average score on the opening day of the tournament, and seven strokes back of leader Martin Kaymer’s opening round 65. That opening round placed him just within the top third of the field of 156 players – a situation which would change dramatically over the next two days.

Friday’s second round saw Compton shoot up the leaderboard from 50th to 15th on the strength of a 2-under 68, one of nine such rounds posted on Friday, and the third-highest score on the day, behind Kaymer’s second 65, and a pair of 67s posted by World #1 Adam Scott and another Georgia Bulldog, Brendon Todd.

On Saturday Compton made another upward move, into a tie for second with Rickie Fowler, after he and Fowler both posted 3-under 67s – the lowest scores recorded in the third round. Compton’s 67 included four bogeys, five birdies, and an eagle, on the par-5 fifth hole.

Going into the final round, tournament leader Martin Kaymer had a healthy lead on Compton, Fowler, and the rest of the field. The 29-year-old native of Dusseldorf had come back to the field slightly with a third-round score of 72, but the cushion he had built with a pair of 65s kept him well ahead of the pack. Compton and Fowler were five strokes behind Kaymer after three rounds, with Dustin Johnson and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson a shot behind them.

Playing the final round with Dustin Johnson while Rickie Fowler was paired with Kaymer, Compton couldn’t match the under-par rounds he had put up on the previous two days as he, Fowler, Johnson, and Stenson each tried to put together the kind of low round that would put some pressure on the unflappable young German. The 2014 Players champion proved to be uncatchable, however, as he kept his cool under final-round pressure, extricating himself from a few bad lies off the fairway, and wielding his putter to great effect even from off the greens. Kaymer’s final round tally of 69, one under par, was enough to hold off his pursuers, even stretching his lead from five strokes to eight in the final accounting.

Compton and Fowler again posted identical scores, 2-over 72s, to tie for second place, two strokes ahead of the five players behind them who tied for third. Walking up the eighteenth fairway to applause from the assembled fans, Compton finished off his round with a flourish, getting up and down on the par-4 eighteenth from a difficult lie in the bunker fronting the green.

Asked what this result means to him, Compton said, “Huge. I hit the ball really well this week. I didn’t have my best stuff on the greens. I had my opportunities to put a little heat on [Kaymer] and I got it to 4-under, then I made a bogey. But all in all, finishing second, the up-and-down I made on 18, just makes the whole week really, really sweet.”

While Compton works to support Donate Life, an organization promoting organ donation, the 34-year-old Floridian doesn’t see himself as a transplant patient who plays golf, but rather, as he quoted his mother as saying, “…a golfer with two transplants.”

Compton’s story is certainly an inspiration to anyone living with a limiting medical condition or physical disability. What this determined man, a husband and father who has persevered and triumphed over tremendous challenges to pursue a physically demanding career, has to say to others who face similar obstacles is this:

“You can’t ever give up. [W]e all have adversity in our lives, some are different than others. The up-and-down I made on 18 is an example of never giving up. I hit the world's worst shot into the green and then got up and down. So when you have disabilities or you have health issues, some days are really bad and then you’ve got to try to make the best of it the next day, and wake up and move your body – and I’m a perfect example of that. I’ve been on my back twice and I never thought I would ever leave the house. Now I just finished second at the U.S. Open, which is – I don't think anybody would have ever thought I would do that, not even myself. So you can't ever write yourself off, you just can’t give up.”

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