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After two heart transplants, Erik Compton goes for PGA Tour card

GOLF

Erik Compton, a lifelong golfer despite lifelong heart disease, is a leader on the Nationwide Tour. He plays in the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic this week and hopes to be on the PGA Tour full time next year.

July 27, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Erik Compton hasn't let three heart transplants stop him from pursuing his goal of playing full time on the PGA Tour someday.
Erik Compton hasn't let three heart transplants stop him from pursuing… (Hunter Martin / Getty Images )

Erik Compton spends hours and hours hitting drivers and nine-irons. Sometimes he argues with his putter. He is a golfer, after all, 31 years old and a proud performer on the Nationwide Tour, sort of the triple-A minor leagues for the PGA Tour.

This week Compton is playing a PGA Tour event, the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia, and next year he'll most likely be playing full time on the PGA Tour, and if this doesn't seem like a big deal, consider this:

Compton is working with his third heart.

Because of lifelong heart disease, Compton has had two heart transplants, the most recent three years ago.

"He has to have constant tests," said Compton's doctor, Javier Jimenez of Miami. "He's constantly taking medication, having biopsies, blood tests. So besides going through life like everyone else, he has to make sure his ankles aren't swollen or his breath isn't short. Erik is remarkable."

Compton, who grew up in Miami, needed his first heart transplant when he was 12. That barely slowed him down. He was a top junior golfer and played at the University of Georgia, where he was an All-American.

But his first transplanted heart began to fail and in 2008 Compton had a second transplant.

"That was a down time for me," Compton said this week. "I was a new husband and father, I had my career going. So I just had to keep on going."

When he tees it up Thursday at the Greenbrier, it will be his 30th start on the PGA Tour. He has made 17 cuts, finished in the top 25 once and he is still learning to balance golf, health, life.

"It's a fact," Compton said. "I get tired easily."

Compton's caddie is Phil Smith. Smith was Compton's friend in high school and isn't loaded with golf knowledge. Smith was a baseball coach and he understands athletes. A couple of years ago, when Compton needed a caddie quick, Smith volunteered.

"He's good enough to win on the PGA Tour," Smith said. "I knew that about him. If he doesn't win once or twice on the PGA Tour next year, I'll be surprised."

Compton is third on the Nationwide Tour money list, and if he finishes the season in the top 25, he'll get his PGA Tour card next year. His defining moment of this season came in June, when Compton shot a final-round 65 and won the Nationwide's Mexican Open, his first victory.

Smith said golf is the easy part for Compton.

"His heart issues don't affect his swing," Smith said. "But it's putting up with life on a daily basis. The fact his other organs don't work as well. Just walking from the green to the tee box, it can take his heart a good 30 seconds to adjust back to normal.

"All that said, he's good enough to win."

Compton is not at all hesitant to be "that guy." He doesn't mind if people point and comment on his heart transplants.

"I'm proud of it," he said. "If I can make a difference for someone else, that's great."

Compton said he has found, since his second transplant, that he has relaxed in his life and his golf.

"I think differently," he said. "I'm not pounding golf balls all the time, wearing myself out. It's taken awhile to understand my body, that if I get a lot of rest, I'll play good golf.

"It's a little more reassurance in me too. I've become more trusting that I have a good swing. Sometimes I think people in the game of golf tweak too much, have a bad week and figure, 'Maybe I had a bad week because I wasn't working on my swing.' Phil, basically he told me my game's good enough, and I've finally bought into that."

Compton doesn't know if he will ever need a third heart transplant.

"Every day is a gift," he said. "All I know is that right now, I don't have to be out there killing myself to get my [tour] card for next year. The reality of what I have is, I probably won't ever have a permanent fix. But I can be very successful and have an awesome life."

And that's what most everyone else hopes for. In that way, Compton is no different.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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