You would think someone with two heart transplants would be at a slight disadvantage in the game of golf, especially when stacked against a field of pros in one of the country’s highest-stakes tournaments. But 34-year-old Erik Compton, runner-up at the U.S. Open this year, says his grim medical history (which also includes a heart attack) only helped fuel his success on the Pinehurst No. 2 course, where he finished in a tie for second with Rickie Fowler of the U.S. “I’m tougher, I’m fighter,” says Compton, the only heart-transplant recipient in the world ever to play pro golf. “Do Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have more stamina? Probably … But golf is a different type of strength. It’s more about mental strength and mental fatigue.”
Those are two assets Compton says he has developed over the years, or since his first heart transplant, at age 12, after a routine doctor’s visit showed he had viral cardiomyopathy, a condition that weakens and enlarges the heart. After the operation, Compton pursued golf nonetheless, and, six years later, he was ranked the No. 1 junior golfer in the U.S. By 2001, Compton was playing pro; he competed on the Nationwide Tour in 2002 and again from 2005 to 2007.
But adversity hit Compton again in 2008, when he suffered a heart attack just moments after driving himself to the hospital. “I parked the car, walked down the stairs, and that’s when I lost consciousness,” he says. Compton says he was lucky to be alive, but the attack led to a second transplant—and then, a similar post-op rally. Five months later, Compton was back on the golf course competing. In 2011, he joined the PGA Tour, where he’s been for the past three years.
“There’s nothing that surprises me anymore—I’m deadened to that,” Compton says. “I’m a realist, and having gone through [two heart transplants], there’s nothing I could see that would surprise me. I haven’t really lived a sheltered life.”
The life that Compton has lived—far more concerned about his health and the future of his family than how close he can get a golf ball to a tiny hole hundreds of yards away—has helped give him the perspective he needs to stay calm in the game, he says. “I don’t care so much about the results, I just go out and play,” says the Miami native. “Of course, I want to play the best as I can, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.”
What matters more to him is helping transplant recipients find organ donors, Compton says. That’s why, just days after his best-ever PGA finish, the golfer was visiting patients at a Hartford, Conn., hospital, a trip he had already planned as part of his “Play Through With Erik Compton” educational campaign with the biotech company Genetech. “I didn’t want to cancel [on the Hartford trip] and go home and celebrate because I knew how important it was to go out and visit patients and raise awareness about organ donation,” he says. “And it just added to the excitement.”
While some in the media have seen Compton’s Hartford hospital visit as a golden touch on an already-heartwarming story, the golfer remains largely unaware of the international sensation he has stirred. When asked whether he’s weary from all the press, he says, “I really don’t know how much media attention I’ve gotten because I haven’t even been able to sleep.” Then, typically, Compton brings it back to his fans. “The fan base at Pinehurst that got behind me was incredible,” he says. “They were just very electric and pleased to see me do well.”
Compton will now also have the chance to play at the U.S. Open and Masters next year, thanks to his impressive finish at Pinehurst—a big jump for a player whose best-ever finish had been a tie for fourth at the 2013 Honda Classic. And while he says his heart hasn’t prevented him from doing the type of physical training he wants—he can now run 10 miles without stopping—his condition does creep up on him from time to time.
“There are days when I feel different, and there are days when I feel great—that’s just the nature of the beast,” he says. “It’s more of an emotional thing because you’re worried about having another issue, but I’m very in-tune with my body. And I don’t know what it’s like to feel normal, because I’ve lived most of my life unnormally ... But I make the most of what I have.” We’ll say.