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Three stories stand above others in Nationwide graduating class

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Billy Hurley was a top amateur but completed five years in the Navy on the way to the PGA Tour. (Getty Images)  
Billy Hurley was a top amateur but completed five years in the Navy on the way to the PGA Tour. (Getty Images)  

Similar situation, completely difference circumstance.

In what has become a fall tradition, the Nationwide Tour on Sunday completed its tension-ridden season finale and minted another crop of 25 graduates who will play next season on the PGA Tour, many for the first time.

The class includes the usual mix of veterans reclaiming cards for the umpteenth time, prospects seemingly destined to excel upon arrival, monster mashers off the tee and a healthy dose of international flavoring, too.

But no question about it, the toughest part isn't trying to determine which of the 25 will make the biggest splash in the majors next year and beyond, but trying to determine which player best personifies the true spirit of the game with regard to personal perseverance.

While soon-to-be rookies Erik Compton, Billy Hurley and Ted Potter didn't top the money list or win the season finale in South Carolina, there was far more to Sunday's interwoven plotlines than just who shot the lowest score. Compton, Hurley and Potter are the embodiment of recovery, reclamation and redemption -- incredible stories thrown together to make one of the more memorable classes in Nationwide history.

Regardless of what happens in 2012.

When Compton's family dined late Sunday night at a local eatery, his parents flashed back to the post-tournament awards ceremony at the course, when Compton was handed his '12 PGA Tour card alongside his fellow graduates.

"Seeing him up there was something," said Peter Compton, Erik's father. "There were tears all around that table."

Tears and beers -- this trio was the toast of the town for so many reasons, each in his own compelling fashion. Compton's achievement represents an almost unimaginable medical miracle. Hurley's climb is testament to self-sacrifice and patriotism, while Potter is Horatio Alger in cleats, a hardscrabble kid who fought his way back after enduring one of the most disastrous seasons of the past decade.

Their joint perseverance culminated Sunday when the cards were handed out as family members, friends, tour officials, fans and caddies looked on. As emcee Jerry Foltz called Compton's name, he ad-libbed an opinion on where the 31-year-old's indescribable accomplishment ranked in his personal pecking order. He could easily have been speaking for millions, really.

"It's the greatest golf story I have seen in my lifetime," said Foltz, a Golf Channel analyst and former tour player.

If possible, Foltz might have sold Compton short. It might be the most indelible achievement in all of sports over the past few decades.

In a story that has been oft-told but still feels underappreciated, Compton is a two-time heart transplant recipient who nearly died of a massive heart attack three years ago but fought his way back. Sunday, with most of his family watching, he earned his card on the big tour for the first time.

"It feels like I have always been this current, and drifting in the opposite direction of where you want to go," Compton said Monday. "Now it feels like I finally made it to the beach, despite the tide."

For much of his life, the destination was hardly ordained. When Compton made it to PGA Tour Qualifying School finals last fall and struggled, guaranteeing him only limited status on the Nationwide in 2011, he not only wasn't sure where he would be playing, but how much he could play, period, because of his physical limitations.

He hit the wall after winning the Mexico Open last summer and his body began rejecting his heart. Doctors gave him doses of Prednisone, which sapped his strength for several weeks and left him so shaky he could not drive for parts of three weeks.

"My hands were too shaky," he said.

Still, he made 25 starts on two tours -- playing five straight weeks in one stretch -- and was able to finish 13th in Nationwide earnings to secure his card for next year.

"It has been quite a journey," Peter Compton said.

From a medical standpoint alone, it is a monumental achievement -- a sports figure on his third heart will compete next year at the game's highest level. Consider that on most days, Compton feels like he has more meds in his system than actual blood.

"It's kind of hard to really put it in words," Compton said Monday.

He did a pretty fair job after the final round: "I think this game has been such a rehab for life for me. It's a place where I can go out and not think about a lot of the issues I've had in the past and issues I even have on a day-to-day basis. It's a miracle, it really is a miracle, what I have been able to achieve."

PGA Tour veteran Ryuji Imada has known Compton since they were teens and played on the same college team at Georgia. He is, and isn't, surprised at what his former teammate has done. After all, Compton has been battling his medical issues for years without complaint.

"I've known the kid for so long, that it's not really news to me," Imada laughed. "But it is incredible that he has done what he's done. He's done what nobody has ever done before. To just play golf after having two transplants is one thing, but to make it to the PGA Tour?"

From an admiration standpoint, the stories of Hurley and Potter are no less noteworthy. Potter, a blue-collar kid from Central Florida who turned pro right out of high school and had little financial backing, spent the 2004 season on the Nationwide at age 20.

It was an unmitigated, complete derailment. Driving from tournament to tournament and living out of a camper shell with a high school pal on the bag, Potter went 0 for 24, failing to make a single cut, and hemorrhaged money that his family didn't have along the way.

"That first year, I was in shock," said Potter, a power-hitting lefty who turns 28 on Nov. 9. "I mean, being 20 years old, I had never traveled before. It was definitely a shock to the system."

Potter returned home, hardly a conquering hero. He played the local mini-tours and eventually found the winning formula on the Hooters Tour, where he was twice named the Player of the Year. It also gave him some much-needed seed money.

Earlier this year, figuring he would play the Hooters circuit again this season, Potter decided to give Monday qualifying a try before the Nationwide's Valdosta event. He not only secured a spot in the field, but he won the tournament, giving him a two-year exemption. Of course, now he won't need it, will he?

"I knew I had a lot of years left, a lot of golf left," he said. "It's a long road."

If not a long boat ride.

Hurley, 28, was a member of the 2005 Walker Cup team, but while teammates such as Anthony Kim, Jeff Overton, J.B. Holmes, Nicholas Thompson and Matt Every were playing on the PGA Tour, he was cruising the Persian Gulf on a Navy destroyer, fulfilling a five-year military hitch after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Two years removed from service, Hurley entered the Nationwide finale at No. 25 in earnings -- the last spot guaranteed to have some status on the PGA Tour next year. After four days of machinations, the former lieutenant finished in that same position when peer Scott Brown made five putts of longer than 15 feet on the back nine of the final round to chase off other money-list contenders.

Hurley was standing behind the 18th green Sunday night as Brown knocked his approach to within three feet for an easy birdie on the last hole, securing Hurley's spot in the majors next year, and was fast met by his family's embrace. His two young sons, Will and Jacob, ages 4 and 2, all but leaped into his arms.

"I don't think I've ever cheered louder for another shot in my life," Hurley told reporters afterward.

He's a guy worth lauding himself. Not only did Hurley proudly serve his country in a global hot spot, his heart is certainly in the right place. His 2-year-old was adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage.

So, three amigos all made it to the big leagues via decidedly different routes, going under, around and over the hurdles tossed before them.

"I tell everybody, this is like the Willy Wonka golden ticket," Compton said, laughing. "When you get into the factory, you can finally buy something."

Just like the chocolate, the sense of accomplishment is pretty sweet.

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