Compton balances blessing of life with wanting to win

Lenny Ignelzi/AP Photo
Erik Compton steps through his approach shot on the 10th hole of the north course at Torrey Pines during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament Thursday
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LOS ANGELES — No one noticed Erik Compton sitting in the back of the room as he listened to the kind of stories he one day would like to tell.

They were more about golf than life.

Compton is more of an expert on the latter at the moment, though he's at the top of the class as a two-time heart transplant recipient.

Behind the microphone was Bill Haas, a FedEx Cup champion and six-time winner on the PGA Tour. One of his wins was at the Northern Trust Open three years ago when he rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt on the famous 10th hole at Riviera to beat Phil Mickelson and reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley in a playoff. The most recent victory was a month ago at the Humana Challenge.

Compton remembers that one all too well. He and Haas were part of a four-way tie for the lead going into the final round, and Compton quickly pulled ahead until he stalled and finished three shots behind. He still hasn't won, and that's the reason for playing.

For now, he's a remarkable 35-year-old from Florida who is on his third heart.

“I'm in the press room because of my story,” Compton said after Haas left the room. “My golf has been kind of so-so the last couple weeks. I haven't played great. I haven't been healthy. … Watching Bill here, it's amazing what a career he's already had. You look at his golf, maybe I should learn a little bit from him, how he kind of just has that knack of winning.”

There is more to Compton than being a medical marvel.

By now, his story gets more attention than his golf. He had his first heart transplant when he was 12 after being diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy. He suffered a heart attack in 2007, and with his heart pumping at 15 percent capacity, he drove himself to the hospital while calling everyone to say he loved them because he thought he wouldn't make it. He had another heart transplant six months later.

Now he is starting his fourth full season on the PGA Tour, each one a little better than the next. He finished 64th in the FedEx Cup standings last year, thanks to a pair of top 10s and a runner-up finish in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. That not only earned him a trip back to the U.S. Open, he's playing in the Masters in April.

He is different from anyone else in golf, yet he shares the same frustrations.

“I know a lot of people want me to win and people put a lot of pressure, added pressure, on me to win because it would be a great story,” Compton said. “But I've got to really win for myself. With that said, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't.”

Still annoyed with his play in the final round of the Humana Challenge, he was determined to learn from it.

“Just maybe hide a little bit and just let it happen,” he said.

His next opportunity starts Thursday in the Northern Trust Open against the strongest field of the year on the PGA Tour. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, a teammate of Compton's at Georgia, is the defending champion. Also at Riviera are Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker.

Compton already has had a full week.

He spent Monday filming a public service announcement at UCLA that is due out in the spring to raise awareness for organ donation with “Donate Life America.” He met with others who have had an organ transplant. He was the first to ring the gold “Transplant Bell” at Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Transplant Center.

“All transplant recipients are welcome to ring that bell at any given time just to hear their accomplishment of being a recipient,” he said. “Just furthering our cause to educate organ donation and our cause, and hopefully, more people consider becoming organ donors and hearing my story.”

The cause is important. So his family, which starts with wife Barbara and a daughter, Petra. And so is his golf.

Considering the two heart transplants and a heart attack that nearly killed him, the fact Compton has even earned a spot on golf's toughest circuit is worthy of celebration. Throw in a silver medal from the U.S. Open, his upcoming debut in the Masters, and it's easy to believe he is satisfied.

What kept him alive, what brought him this far, is enough for him to think there is much more to accomplish.

“I'm sure there are people that are inspired by my story. And there may be people who are tired of hearing about my story,” he said. “I just try to do the best I can. My ultimate goal out here is to win. The reason that I'm alive is because of somebody else's gift of life to give me life. There's no denying that. But I'm also alive because I have tremendous determination. I don't lay down for anything. I want to be as good as I can be.

“I think my cause with 'Donate Life' is more important than golf,” he said. “It may not be the coolest story. I'm not the No. 1 player in the world or won 10 times, but what we do with saving lives is more important than the game. And I'm very happy to be involved with the PGA Tour because they have allowed me to use this as a great platform to help get the word out.”

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