Compton fights to runner-up finish

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.

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