Commentary

Compton fights to runner-up finish

Updated: June 16, 2014, 4:42 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Erik Compton had come too far to surrender to a golf course that spent the weekend beating up the best players in the world. He was on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open, stuck in the sand and trying desperately to finish under par, when he let Pinehurst No. 2 know that it had finally picked a fight with the wrong guy.

[+] EnlargeErik Compton
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe top of the leaderboard was a blowout, but the game within the game provided the real drama Sunday at the U.S. Open as Erik Compton finished tied for second, clinching his first trip to the Masters.

Compton's fellow competitor, Henrik Stenson, would call this 155-foot bunker shot the nastiest in the game, an in-between distance that can reduce a pro to a sorry weekend hacker. But near the end of Martin Kaymer's runaway victory, Compton wanted second place, and a score in red numbers, as much as he wanted to pull off an upset victory for the ages at the start of the round.

So he landed that bunker shot 7 feet from the pin, and the overflow crowd around the clubhouse green and in the bleachers responded with a standing ovation. Compton waved his black cap to the fans, slapped Stenson's extended hand, and then went about the business of nailing down his par.

There would be no doubt on this one. After undergoing two heart transplant surgeries, and after traveling a long road of mini-tours all over North America, Erik Compton wasn't about to miss a U.S. Open putt that would give him a tie for second place, a score of 1-under 279, and an invitation to next spring's Masters.

He pumped his fist when the ball fell into the hole, swung his right arm, hugged his caddie Victor Billskoog, and waved his cap again in acknowledgment of one last standing O.

Who cares if he ended up 8 shots behind Kaymer, maybe the next great winner in golf?

"I hit the world's worst shot into the green and then got up and down," Compton said. "So when you have disabilities or you have health issues, some days are really bad and then you've got to try to make the best of it the next day and wake up and move your body. And I'm a perfect example of that.

"I've been on my back twice and I never thought I would ever leave the house. Now I just finished second at the U.S. Open."

Sam Snead never did better than that.

"I think I showed the world today that I'm capable of playing good golf under extreme pressure and heat," Compton said.

He showed the world a whole lot more, too.

In any other year, this U.S. Open would have been just another blowout. Just another bore. But the game within the game -- Compton's battle to stay near the top of the leaderboard -- made for a riveting drama to all fans of the human condition.

This was the most amazing near-miss at a major since a 59-year-old Tom Watson almost won the Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009, when he stood in the 18th fairway one par away from history.

At age 34 and with no PGA Tour victories to his name, Compton had arrived at Pinehurst as a study in courage and perseverance. As a young boy, he'd assured everyone he would grow up to be a star athlete, a prediction he stuck with after he was diagnosed at age 9 with viral cardiomyopathy, an inflammation of the heart that diminishes its ability to pump blood.

"Even when I got wheeled out of the operating room, and they have it on camera," he recalled, "I said I would be a professional baseball player."

He became a professional golfer instead, and one of the toughest on the planet. In the fall of 2007, when his first transplanted heart finally gave out, the heart of a teenage girl killed by a drunk driver, Compton called family and friends from his car to say goodbye as he raced to Miami's Jackson Memorial hospital.

He told them he was feeling the intense pain of a dying man, and yet the doctors would keep him alive long enough to receive another transplant, this one from a former college volleyball player killed in a hit-and-run crash.

Six years later, Compton placed second in the most grueling golf tournament of them all. Second. Even Ben Hogan, who won the 1950 U.S. Open 16 months after his near-fatal car accident, would have had a hard time believing this one.

"I never thought he'd play again," said Compton's longtime coach, Jim McLean.

On the way into his second transplant surgery, the student called the teacher, who was attending a San Diego Padres game. Compton bid McLean a final farewell, just in case he didn't make it.

Eight or nine days after the transplant, McLean visited Compton in his home. The lowest point, the teacher said, "was when he told me the pain he was in. He said if he knew it was going to be this tough, he may not have wanted to do the heart transplant."

Compton would give away his golf clubs, even though he never completely gave up on the idea of a comeback. On one walk with his student in the hospital, before anyone knew if a donor's heart would become available in time to save Erik's life, McLean and Compton tried to piece together career alternatives in case a return to golf was as unrealistic as some doctors were suggesting.

"It was a short list," McLean said of those alternatives. Compton mentioned he might want to become a fishing guide in Colorado or in the Florida keys.

But there he was Sunday at the Open, trying to make Kaymer feel his presence on the front nine. The fans cheered for him from tee to green, trying to carry this zillion-to-one shot home.

Kaymer was much too much to overcome, and it didn't matter. On Father's Day, Compton was giving this forever gift to his old man, Peter, who was out there with his wife Eli. Peter recalled arriving at Jackson Memorial after Erik had collapsed to the hospital floor.

"I got there five minutes after they actually wheeled him into the emergency room and tried to stabilize him," Peter recalled Sunday evening. "I threw back the big curtain to see what was going on, and it was like the world's worst movie. Erik apologized to me. He said, 'I'm sorry you [have] to see me like this, Dad.'"

From behind the ropes, amid the Pinehurst masses on Father's Day, Peter couldn't see his son as he made that impossible par. He decided to turn his back to the 18th green, close his eyes, and listen to the crowd's reaction.

He heard his son sink a putt worth an extra $182,670, a putt that clinched a payday of $789,330 in all and, of course, his first trip to the Masters.

"I don't know how far in advance they let you book it there," Peter said, "but we'll be the first in line, I'll tell you that."

Not that Erik Compton was thinking about Augusta at the close of his Open; he was thinking about his up-and-down on the final hole, and why it should serve as an example to those who might consider quitting on themselves.

"If I never played golf again for the rest of my life," Compton said, "I think that I have made my mark in this game."

It's a hell of a mark. A man getting by on his third heart just broke par at the U.S. Open, proving to every first-hand witness that you can still win by finishing in second place.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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