Peter Compton, weary of trying to look through people’s legs to catch a glimpse of his son around the 18th green, turned his back, closed his eyes and listened.
What he heard on Father’s Day was the sound of fans rising to their feet in a packed grandstand in appreciation for his youngest son, who scripted one of the most incredible comeback stories in all of sports. Here’s a 34-year-old man who has had three separate hearts beating in his chest. He has been cut open and stitched back together twice. Fearful that his next breath might be his last, he has said goodbye to loved ones, only to get second and third chances at life.
Erik Compton is a walking miracle. And though he didn’t win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, fans lifted him around a steamy No. 2 course with shouts of encouragement and praise to the point even his playing competitor, the steely Henrik Stenson, got goosebumps.
“I’ve never had that feeling because I’ve always felt I was the underdog,” Compton said. “There’s always better players and better stories.”
Martin Kaymer’s four-day clinic around this Donald Ross gem was masterful. The golf world celebrates and respects his mighty eight-shot romp. But Compton might be the most meaningful runner-up in the championship’s 114-year history.
“You realize when you play in majors it’s not about your swing; it’s about what you’ve got inside, your guts,” Compton said. “It’s the person that makes somebody special on the golf course.”
Compton called his up-and-down for par from 55 yards on the 72nd hole the best of his career. It secured a share of second with hotshot orangeman Rickie Fowler. On Sunday at Pinehurst, Compton said, there was a tournament within a tournament, and he held his own. He’ll take the experience and build from it for a time when the gap isn’t quite so insurmountable.
This marked Compton’s second major-championship appearance, and he likened golf’s big four to Chinese torture. Next year he’ll give dad the thrill of Augusta National.
Eli Compton wore her son’s silver medal around her neck while he made the media rounds.
“He literally was born running,” Eli said of her son. Everything in life was about being competitive. Compton constantly challenged all the other boys in the neighborhood to see who could run or swim the fastest.
He was a natural athlete, excelling at baseball as a pitcher and shortstop. He played basketball, baseball and football. Golf was too slow.
At age 9, Compton was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart muscle is inflamed and unable to pump effectively. Eli trotted him out to many a function early on to share his story. For 23 years she worked for Miami’s Transplant Foundation, first as a volunteer and ultimately as executive director.
“I used him literally as a prop for meetings,” she said.
Eli worries that Compton’s first heart donor, a 14-year-old named Janine who died in a hit-and-run accident along with her mother, gets lost now.
He used to joke that he didn’t need to win a girl’s heart; he already had one.
In the fall of 2007, Compton suffered a major heart attack and drove himself to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. On the way there, he called his mother to say he was dying.
Eli, paralyzed by fear, screamed at him to pull over and dial 911.
“He said, ‘No, I’ve got to get there,’ and then hung up,” Eli recalled as she walked down the eighth fairway Sunday.
She was in a fundraising meeting at the time, and a Miami police officer who happened to be in the room told her that she was in no condition to drive. The officer sped the entire way to the hospital.
As for Compton, well, he had to take a detour because of construction and ran several tolls. (A ticket later arrived in the mail.) He parked haphazardly in the parking lot and fell down as soon as he walked through the emergency-room doors.
“They immediately started filling out the paperwork,” Peter said, “and asked for an insurance card.”
Compton didn’t have that kind of time.
Peter’s office at Royal Caribbean was five minutes away, and when he arrived, he pulled back the curtain to find doctors “pounding on him like you see in every bad movie.”
“I’m sorry you have to see me like this, Dad,” Compton told his father.
He thought he was dying.
But Compton hadn’t survived that first transplant – battling through weight issues that caused him to pull out of school and feel like an outcast, only to take up golf and rise to be the best junior in the land – to quit now.
I don’t have anything to really prove to anybody anymore. If I never played golf again for the rest of my life, I think that I have made my mark in this game.
Compton fought back, met his wife, Barbara, at the gym while getting strong for his next transplant and then received the heart of Isaac Klosterman, a 26-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, who died in a hit-and-run accident while on vacation in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Compton had lunch with Klosterman’s family one year while playing in the Memorial Tournament in nearby Columbus. Eli keeps up with Isaac’s mother and siblings on Facebook, and he received encouraging words from Lillian Klosterman before the final round at Pinehurst.
Eli detests when people use the term “shelf life” to ask about the longevity of Erik’s current heart. It’s not something the family discusses at the dinner table.
“Do you know how long you’re going to live?” Eli asked.
Compton said on the eve of the final round that if he were to win the U.S. Open, he might sail off into the sunset and never play golf again. Jack Nicklaus told Compton that something special would happen if he qualified for Pinehurst. That planted a seed of self-belief.
Looking back, Compton said it’s a blessing he missed the cut at Jack’s place. It gave him more energy for the 36-hole qualifier that went into overtime that Monday.
Compton had circled this week on his calendar months ago as a priority for 2014. He asked his wife to stay home with their daughter so he and coach Charles DeLucca III could stay laser-focused.
At noon on Sunday, 5-year-old Petra called DeLucca and asked why her daddy wasn’t answering the phone.
It was Father’s Day, and she wanted to give him something.
Compton was still sleeping at noon, saving his energy for what was sure to be the most grueling and potentially rewarding round of his life.
Eventually they connected, with Petra sending the picture of a card made of rocks with the message, “Daddy Rocks.”
There’s a special perspective that comes with being so close to death. The next time Compton is on his flatboat in the Everglades at 6 a.m. soaking up the stillness, he can reflect on a week in which his heart was so full it surely overflowed.
“I don’t have anything to really prove to anybody anymore,” Compton said. “If I never played golf again for the rest of my life, I think that I have made my mark in this game.”