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At Q-school again, Compton seeks to advance remarkable tale

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- Erik Compton apparently isn't a details guy.

He assumes that he has burned through most of the nest egg established by the fundraiser tournaments staged on his behalf when he was a kid but doesn't exactly agonize over every outgoing dollar, even though he hasn't had a steady job since 2007.

"I swear, I don't even look at my bank account," he laughed. "It's probably good I don't even think about it. Worry about it when it comes."

Or when it goes.

If ever there was a guy who earned the right not to sweat the small stuff, who can be forgiven for mostly taking a live-for-the-moment attitude, it's Compton.

Emphasis on the live part.

Compton made the Q-school finals for the second time in his career. (Getty Images)  
Compton made the Q-school finals for the second time in his career. (Getty Images)  
Continuing to author one of the most admirable and inspiring autobiographies in sports, the 31-year-old double heart transplant recipient this week is among the 166 players at PGA Tour Qualifying School Finals, where he is seeking to solidify a spot on a major golf tour for the first time since a massive heart attack nearly killed him in mid-2007.

Two years ago, laid up at home and awaiting news of a donor heart that was by no means assured, Compton gave away his clubs and assumed his golf days were over. Of course, as anybody who has followed his story on CBSSports.com, ABC, HBO, ESPN and plenty of other news outlets knows, it was life itself that seemingly had a true expiration date.

Playing better than ever, Compton now stands four good rounds from making it to another Promised Land. It's called the PGA Tour.

"It is crazy, and for the people who don't know the whole story and haven't been around me, I guess I am just the guy who has had two new hearts," he said this week. "But when you are lying in the hospital and it's over with, and it was over with, the fact that I am here is just, just crazy.

"I shouldn't even be ... it's weird it has worked out this way. I remember my dad telling me, 'You'll be back playing soon.' I was like, 'Dad, it's over.'"

As it turns out, father knew best. It's possibly just beginning.

Compton, a former college star at Georgia, played with good success on the second-tier Nationwide Tour for several seasons before his first donor heart began failing in 2007. That year, he finished a dismal 169th in earnings with a shade over $20,000. Soon enough, he had bigger problems.

When his first donor heart gave out and his condition was critical, Compton was convinced his dad was blowing sunshine up his hospital gown about playing. After 30 days, he was released and sent home to await news of another donated organ. The phone didn't ring for weeks as his condition deteriorated.

"Waiting for a heart, waiting to see if I was going to die, very bad times," Compton said. "Now I am out here playing? Maybe [dad] was right. I guess nobody ever really knows how close they are, you know?"

He's so close to Valhalla of another sort, he can touch it.

PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament

Compton shot a 1-under par Thursday at Orange County National, where players alternate between two courses for six days and 108 grueling holes. It has long been considered the toughest slog in golf, and that's for guys who aren't gulping down a handful of anti-rejection meds every morning with breakfast.

Compton, mind you, fainted and was hauled off the course in his first trip to Q-school finals in 2001, creating a pretty big stir. It also begs a legitimate question.

When he was first making a comeback from his second transplant in late 2008, just a few months after open-heart surgery in May, Compton petitioned for the use of an electric cart at a couple of tour stops where he'd received sponsor exemptions and was granted permission to ride.

It stands to reason that, given his legitimately permanent disability and growing celebrity, if he asked for such assistance again, the tour would toss him the keys -- however reluctantly -- to another set of wheels. Somebody in Ponte Vedra Beach surely learned something in the Casey Martin case a decade ago.

Earlier this season, after sputtering in the final round of the Memorial Tournament in Ohio, Compton dejectedly complained of repeatedly running out of gas in the fourth round this season, no doubt a result of his heart particulars and associated condition. But at this point, there will be no asterisk on whatever he accomplishes as a professional, even if that assignation would exist mostly in his own mind.

Really, would anybody dare complain after all that he has been through?

"Maybe I am stubborn, but I don't want anybody saying that I have any sort of advantage," he said. "Everybody runs out of gas, to a point. For me, it's therapeutic for me to walk -- maybe it's a pride thing. Maybe if was ever in a situation of dire straits, like I was before, I might ask for it.

"But even when I asked for it for those four months, there were people giving me crap about it. I just don't want to live with that. I would rather just play and get what I can out of it. I am healthy enough to play four days and still make a living doing it.

"It is my own battle to get better at that and eventually I will break through doing that. Because I did it before with the other heart."

In case you missed the two-pronged whammy here, it was the part where he said, "I did it before with the other heart," and "Maybe I am just stubborn."

The first sentence has never before been uttered by any professional athlete. The second part is as obvious as the nose on his face. The kid has mettle that's harder than titanium. Same for his head.

For those who have tracked the past few years of his amazing story, from up close or far afield, it will be riveting to watch the week play out. As it stands, the best part might come after the final round on Monday.

Because if he makes it to the PGA Tour, he has not the slightest clue as to how much he will be able to play next year without wearing down physically.

"I guess I will have to take that one step at a time," he said. "See how much I can take. I am only going to be able to play so much, so often. I haven't really begun to think about that part of it yet."

Carpe diem, brother.

Which isn't to say he doesn't have some eye for the bigger picture. After he cruised through the second stage of Q-school two weeks ago, making the finals for the second time in his career, he realized that because he had secured status on either the PGA or Nationwide next year, he was eligible for the players' insurance plan.

Given his medical affairs, that's a notable victory in itself. For the past three years, Compton has been buying insurance through COBRA and paying roughly $2,000 a month, which doesn't even cover the full cost of his many meds.

"When I got through second [stage], I knew the insurance would be available, and thought, 'That's pretty cool,'" he laughed.

Not just for him, either. He has a wife and a daughter, Petra, who turns 2 in February. It's a huge relief on several fronts.

All that's left is to determine where he'll play in '11, a dizzying thought given where he was in May 2007. That month, former Dayton University volleyball player Isaac Klosterman was killed at age 26 in a Miami motorcycle accident. His kidneys went to a pair of boys, ages 11 and 15. His liver was transplanted into a 57-year-old man. His lungs went to a 65-year-old male.

His heart went under Compton's hood. Erik had received the heart of a 12-year-old girl in his first transplant, 16 years before it finally failed. In other words, not to remotely disparage his first heart, but with the ticker of a full-grown male athlete firing away, he might possess a bit more horsepower these days.

He's certainly playing like it. Even though he has no playing status on any tour, Compton made the most of his sponsor exemptions this year and made the cut in five of seven PGA Tour events, plus another in Europe.

"I think this was probably my best year as a professional," he said. "I really felt like I had a breakthrough at the Greenbrier."

That's a modest understatement. Compton shot 63 in the first round of the PGA Tour's first-year Greenbrier Classic to grab the overnight lead and was in eighth place before a closing 73 sent him tumbling down the board. Maybe it was another case of final-round fatigue setting in or perhaps it was just a bad day, but Compton isn't taking any needless chances this week.

He arrived at the Q-school site Sunday and has been rationing out his energy carefully, skipping any unnecessary practice sessions. He's even staying at the course lodge, which will cut down on any commuting wear and tear.

"This tournament is a true test of golf," he said. "In six rounds, everybody is going to be tired. I have been completely pacing myself."

Sounds like an astute plan. Because, as his dad rightly predicted, Compton has plenty of golf ahead of him, maybe even at the highest possible level.

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