Martin Kaymer leads at U.S. Open, but Erik Compton’s story inspires

Martin Kaymer stumbled along the way to what had seemed like an inexorable march toward the second major championship of his career on the same steamy and often stirring Saturday afternoon when Miami native Erik Compton equaled the low round of the day and finished 54 holes tied for second place in the 144th U.S. Open.

Compton’s performance, a 3-under-par 67 at a particularly penal Pinehurst No. 2, was almost as remarkable as his own personal journey to get within five shots of Kaymer’s lead Saturday. After all, the Coral Gables golfer is the only man in the history of his or any other big-time professional sport to have undergone two separate heart transplant operations and recovered to compete at the highest level of his game.

In only the second Open of his truly inspirational career, Compton now will find himself even more in the international spotlight, with a chance to do the unthinkable after nearly dying of heart failure before the second transplant of his life in 2008. Catching the 29-year-old German obviously will be difficult, but Compton has faced such long odds in getting this far, and the same sort of gritty performance exhibited in his third round surely would give him a fighting chance.

“To be playing well and to be in the mix at a U.S. Open is a dream come true,” Compton said after his round. Winning on Sunday, Father’s Day, he added, “would mean the absolute world to me.”

At one point in the middle of his third round, Compton made a 12-foot eagle putt at the 530-yard fifth hole and added four more birdies in one seven-hole stretch that left him at 4-under for the tournament and alone in second place at the time. He played his back nine in 1-under 34, and his 67 matched the day’s low round posted by Rickie Fowler, tied with Compton for second place at 3-under 207 going into the final round.

Fowler signed his scorecard about 20 minutes before Compton and will be paired with Kaymer in the final group. Compton will play just up ahead with Henrik Stenson (70) of Sweden, tied for fourth place with Dustin Johnson (70) at 2-under 208 and six shots behind. Brandt Snedeker (72) was the only other player in the field still under par for the week, alone in sixth place at 1-under 209, seven shots back.

Kaymer began the tournament with back-to-back 65s, an Open scoring record for 36 holes, but was clearly off his meticulous, other-worldly play of the first two days. He came in to the third round with a six-shot lead that was whittled to five when he posted an off-kilter 72 that left him at 8-under 202 going into the final round. After making only one bogey and 11 birdies in his first 36 holes, he suddenly became very human with only one birdie — at the 18th hole — and five bogeys on a card that also included an eagle at the fifth.

Much of his day was filled with a number of wild drives off the tee that kept him in constant scrambling mode, and a repeat Sunday would obviously jeopardize his chances to add an Open title to his 2010 PGA Championship. Still, he insisted he was satisfied with his final score.

“A lot of things were happening [Saturday], but I think I kept it very well together,” he said. “Overall, it’s a decent round. I’m looking forward to see how I feel [Sunday], how I react to certain situations. Anything can happen. For me personally, it will be interesting to see how I’ll handle it.”

Compton, who lives in Coral Gables, said he wasn’t paying much attention to the scoreboard, as usual. He has always prided himself on his intense focus on the course, and when his mother told him before the start of play Saturday that no one among the earlier starters was going low, he said he told her to walk away and just leave him alone.

“I try to avoid my parents during a major championship because it’s a totally different mind-set,” he said. “I love my parents and all my friends, but you just don’t want to hear about what’s going on because you need to get ready when you go play. It doesn’t matter what anybody else does, it matters what you do and your mind-set. You have to play your game. You can’t control what other guys do.”

Compton also said he drew some inspiration from Jack Nicklaus when he had lunch with him two weeks ago at the Memorial in Ohio.

“He kind of winked at me and said, ‘Your game will suit Pinehurst,’ ” Compton said. “He had a smile on his face and it was kind of neat. … He said that if I got there [qualified], I would have a special week. Maybe it’s kind of a self-fulfilling thing that I brought on myself, but I felt like I was going to have a great week.

“I think my attitude suits a U.S. Open course because I don’t ever give up. I’m extremely hard on myself, but I tend to forget the bad shots I hit and move to the next hole. It’s kind of reflective of how I’ve always lived my life. If you have a bad situation or a bad day, you get up and try to do it again.”