Erik Compton has played Augusta National several times, and he squeezed in a practice round on these gorgeous grounds three weeks ago. Still, as he drove up Magnolia Lane on Monday to play his first nine holes of the week, the reality of competing in his first Masters tournament truly struck home.
“It’s every boy’s dream to play in the Masters,” Compton said a few hours later, after shooting 33 on the front nine with four birdies and bogey. “When you drive in to register, getting to the first tee, seeing all the fans and really appreciating the golf course. It’s almost like Disney World for a golfer. You get this, it’s like too perfect.”
It is also a perfect made-for-the movies Masters week story: a 35-year-old journeyman golfer from Miami playing on borrowed time since first being diagnosed at age 9 with viral cardiomyopathy, an inflamed heart muscle that makes it difficult to properly pump blood. There was a first heart transplant at 12, a near-death experience at age 28 and a second transplant, followed by a remarkable recovery that included a stunning runner-up finish in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst a year ago, securing his first appearance at this revered championship.
“It’s a story you couldn’t make up,” said Charlie DeLucca, director of golf at Miami’s Melreese Country Club and Compton’s swing instructor. “Right now, we’re definitely living the dream. Monday was really a day to remember. We got here and the vice president of the club met us and showed us where to go, what to do. Erik played a practice round with Jim Furyk, who was teaching him things on the course it might take years to learn. What a cool thing.”
Compton, who lives in Coral Gables, is well aware of what his own remarkable journey represents, particularly to so many other transplant patients who constantly write, email or even seek him out on the golf course. The former Palmetto High standout now has his own foundation, raising thousands of dollars at a charity golf tournament last month, and also is a spokesman for an organization called Donate Life, an alliance to raise local and national awareness for organ and tissue transplants. Coincidentally, the Masters is being played during Donate Life Month.
“You know, when I was growing up as a kid, I didn’t have many people to look up to that had transplants,” Compton said. “Now, with the [transplant] community growing and people being able to see that I’m able to walk up these hills and compete at a high level, I think it’s just great for everyone.”
There have been times over the years when things were not so peachy, on and off the golf course. Returning home one day after a fishing excursion in May 2008, Compton suffered a massive heart attack. Somehow, he managed to drive himself to the hospital, even calling his mother, Eli, to tell her he wasn’t sure he was going to survive. He also phoned Chris Haack, his old college coach at the University of Georgia, who told the Augusta Chronicle, “I just started bawling. I said, ‘C’mon … you’re gonna be fine.’” Haack added that Compton told him, “I just wanted to let you know that I love you.”
Fortunately, the goodbyes were premature. Compton was the beneficiary of another heart transplant, but as he was recovering in an intensive care unit, he recently admitted, “I pretty much had come to grips that I wasn’t ever going to play golf again.”
But he did, slowly regaining enough strength to start swinging a club, then playing again and, finally, competing, all the while taking massive doses of medicine to make certain he could keep going.
Six months after the transplant, he was given a sponsor’s exemption into the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney World, made the cut and finished 60th. In 2010, he qualified for his first U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, then in 2011 he earned his card on the Nationwide Tour (now called the Web.com Tour). He finished 13th on the money list, securing his first full PGA Tour card for 2012. He has been playing at that level ever since, with that tie for second at Pinehurst his finest finish.
This season, he has struggled. After tying for 10th at the Humana Challenge in January, at one point he missed five consecutive cuts. Last week, he was 55th in Houston, but both he and his coach, DeLucca, took some solace in knowing he had made a lot of birdies on the weekend, along with a score-squelching triple bogey on his 72nd hole.
Still, DeLucca said, Compton has been making changes in his swing this season, some of them specifically designed for success at the Masters. He changed his ball flight to a higher arc and also switched to a new, state-of-the-art Titleist driver from the one he used at the Open. DeLucca said he saw plenty of progress last week in Houston and that Compton’s game is actually ideally suited for Augusta National.
“We’ve been really gearing up for this for the last two months,” DeLucca said. “The changes may have hurt him for a little while, but right now he’s hitting the ball really good. His putting on these greens has been incredibly good, just where we wanted him to be coming into Augusta. The greens and these tight chipping areas are tougher than a U.S. Open, but it also suits Erik’s short game. I honestly don’t think there will be a problem for him to get in the top 10. It’s just a matter of executing and him feeling good.”
The goal, he added, is the same this week as any other time when Compton tees it up.
“We try to beat half the field every day,” DeLucca said. “First day, try to be top 40. Next day, top 20, and then go out and get in contention.
Compton, paired with Welshman Ian Woosnam and Australian Marc Leishman in Thursday’s first round, played another nine holes on Tuesday, shooting 1-over 37. He’ll compete in the annual Par 3 contest on Wednesday, with his 6-year-old daughter, Petra, accompanying her dad on his round. His wife, Barbara, and his parents, Peter and Eli, are here this week, as well, and Peter Compton, perhaps more than anyone, “has an interesting way of inspiring me,” Erik said with a smile.
“He was joking, saying, ‘Well, you’re 5-foot-8, 155 pounds and you’re old and you’re probably not as talented as the young guys,’ ” Compton recalled one recent conversation. “So as I’m yelling at him on the phone, he says, ‘Just go out and do what you’ve got to do.’ ”
Clearly, Erik Compton always does.