Golfer Erik Compton will tee off as a fully-fledged PGA Tour member on Thursday
Compton has already had two heart transplants but has still reached top of the sport
He won the Mexico Open in 2011 to seal his lifelong dream of playing on the PGA Tour
Compton says golf has helped keep him alive through his many years of health problems
For a player to succeed in the high pressured, multi-million dollar world of professional golf they must marry their special talent to an unshakable sense of determination.
That shouldn’t be a problem for U.S. PGA Tour rookie Erik Compton.
After two heart transplants, the 32-year-old American has finally earned the chance to compete on the Tour, fulfilling a destiny that had seemed a distant dream.
“What I did was pretty special, considering where I’d been and what I’d had to deal with,” Compton told CNN ahead of his debut as a full-time card-holder in Hawaii this week. “It was very overwhelming.
“I couldn’t believe it when I made the PGA Tour – I’ve had to fight for everything my entire life, so you think, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
Compton had been toiling on the second-tier Nationwide Tour, but victory at the Mexico Open helped him finish 13th on the money list and secured his place for 2012 alongside stars such as Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
“I got sick right after that tournament, I ended up in hospital, and the doctors put me on a lot of medication – that’s when it sunk in and I realized what I’d accomplished.”
Compton was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at the age of nine, a condition that limits the heart’s capacity to pump blood, and had his first transplant three years later.
Heavy medication restricted a sport-obsessed kid who was once bigger and faster than most of his peers, stunting his growth. But as he got stronger in his teens, his love for golf flourished.
By 1998 Compton was ranked as the top junior in the United States, competing against – and beating – the likes of 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman and current world number six Adam Scott.
But bad health still dogged his progress, and even caused him to pass out during an early attempt at the PGA Tour’s qualifying school. After appearing in the Walker Cup, a team event between the best amateurs from the U.S. and Europe, he turned pro.
Despite taking the order of merit on the Canadian Tour in 2004, and winning an event in Morocco in 2005, Compton was far from fulfilling his potential when his health began to deteriorate again in 2007.
He was on course to make the cut at an event in Idaho, until a hook out of bounds on a closing hole resulted in him taking a nine shots and a making early exit from the tournament.
As fate would have it, it was one of his worst shots that saved his life.
“I wouldn’t be alive if I had made that cut,” he said. “The only reason I survived was because I was close enough to drive to the hospital when I felt a heart attack coming on and they put in a stent immediately.”
Compton’s heart attack – known as a “widowmaker” because few survive its intensity – forced another anxious period spent waiting for a donor.
“Obviously, it put things in perspective, all I wanted to do was stay alive,” he explained. “I was sitting in a chair, coughing up blood – I couldn’t breathe at night. I thought maybe I’ll just have a house and live a quiet life.
“I never really enjoyed life until after a few weeks, the heart was shutting down, I couldn’t sleep. Just doing simple things, lying down on couch watching TV, I would instantly start coughing up blood.”
Surviving one heart transplant, let alone two, is a feat to be proud of, but Compton says it took less than a week after surgery for his mind to turn to swinging a club again.
Incredibly, just five months later he made a return to competitive action, tying for 60th at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic on the PGA Tour – a high-pressure elite circuit where millions of dollars are at stake every weekend.
His courage, and talent, propelled him into the limelight. “The surgeons thought I was crazy,” he laughed.
“I slowly picked up my swing; I wasn’t as strong as I am now but I figured out a way to get it done. I have a gift to be able to play sport and have the co-ordination to do it, so I’ve been blessed that way – not so blessed in other things.”
Compton’s desire to fulfill his dream of qualifying for a PGA Tour card helped to energize his recovery, as did the birth of his first child – another miracle given that doctors had been unsure if he’d be able to have kids due to the medication he has taken all his life.
He gradually regained full power but did have to seek special dispensation from the authorities to use a golf cart to get round the course, and to be absolved from their drug testing process, due to the medication that was vital for his survival.
“I got some letters from Ireland saying I was compromising the integrity of the game by using a cart and that Ben Hogan never would have done that! My goal was not to use it but, hey, there may be one day I have to use it again.”
In 2009 Compton received the Ben Hogan Award, for courage, presented to him by golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, and after two steady seasons he clinched his PGA Tour place with that momentous win in Mexico.
“The whole of last season was tough, I was playing but I wasn’t 100%,” he said ahead of Thursday’s opening round at the Sony Open. “This year coming up I’m really excited playing on the Tour – I’ve played a lot of events in the past but now I’m healthy and I can handle a lot of it.
“The only issue I have is trying to capitalize – 100% for me, is maybe 65-70% for someone else, so when I have a cold or I’m not feeling the best it’s hard to compete at a high level.
“My body has taken a hit over the years, I don’t know the difference because I feel pretty strong, but that’s the stuff I deal with on a day to day basis. My immune system is lower so I catch more colds and it takes me longer to fight them off but I’m used to that.”
Compton’s inspirational journey is sure to make even more headlines now that he will be playing side by side with the best golfers on the planet every week.
“I just try to live my own life and make the best out of what I can – if that inspires others then that’s great. But I’m just trying to live my life the best I can,” he said.
“I think the message is more powerful than the game itself because it can touch everybody. I enjoy speaking my message to those who understand and get life, I don’t enjoy telling it to people who don’t understand.
“Golf has given me a reason to get out of my bed, so it’s been very important. I’m very blessed to have a passion and ability. Golf has kept me alive, there’s no doubt about it.”