Open dreams still real for Compton

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PINEHURST, N.C. -- Eli Compton hears often from the parents who helped save her son's life. Jeff and Lillian Klosterman message her on Facebook, and sometimes they talk about life, about their kids, about the incredible gift they gave Eli's boy six years ago, when Erik Compton wasn't sure he would ever attend another U.S. Open, never mind win one.

The Klostermans' 26-year-old son Isaac was an organ donor killed in a hit-and-run accident while riding his motorcycle on a Florida vacation in 2008, and his heart would become Erik's heart. It was a proud athlete's heart, too; Isaac was once a volleyball player at the University of Dayton, and now the very reason why his father will be pulling for Compton to score the big Father's Day upset at Pinehurst.

"Tell Erik to go for it," was the note Eli Compton said she received Friday from Jeff Klosterman. "We're so proud."

Tied for second place at 3-under, 5 shots behind Martin Kaymer, Compton has a chance to write the greatest golf story ever told. At 34, he has never won a PGA Tour event. Of far greater consequence, he has survived not one heart transplant surgery, but two.

He was 9 years old when diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, an inflammation of the heart that prevents it from pumping blood at a life-sustaining rate. At age 12, Erik received the heart of a teenage girl named Jannine who had been killed by a drunk driver.

Sixteen years later, when Jannine's heart gave out, Isaac's took its place. He'd been riding his motorcycle toward West Palm Beach when a pick-up truck crashed into him from the rear.

"It was such a tragedy for that family," Eli said of the Klostermans. "But as the mother Lillian said, 'It's a gift. It's Erik's heart now. It's not ours, it's his.' "

Compton needed it Saturday to shoot a 3-under 67 on an angry bear of a golf course, one of only two scores under par in the third round. And when it was over, Eli Compton stood behind the Pinehurst clubhouse and remembered the day her son called her to say he was about to die.

This was in the fall of 2007, and Erik Compton was driving away from a course in the Miami area when he believed he was suffering a heart attack so severe that he wouldn't be able to complete his frantic detour to the nearest hospital.

Erik was struggling to breathe, struggling to manage the intense pain. He decided to phone his loved ones to say his goodbyes.

"Mom," he told Eli, "I'm not going to make it."

She ordered him to stop and call 911, but Erik kept driving in what he thought would be a lost race against time.

"And then he managed to get into the emergency room," Eli said. "He was coughing up blood and they asked for his insurance card."

Eli laughed a bit at the absurdity of it all. She recalled that she was in a meeting at her home with committee members of a transplant organization when her son made the call.

"I have to go to the hospital," she told the committee members. "Erik is dying."

One of the organization's officials, a police officer, told Eli she was in no condition to drive and raced her off to the hospital, zigging and zagging through traffic on the way.

"Thank God I got there and I could see him before they closed the curtains," Erik's mother said, "because they said to me, 'You shouldn't look at him.'"

Erik's father, Peter, would later describe the sight of ER doctors pounding on his son's chest as a scene out of a movie. Doctors gave Erik a pacemaker and defibrillator, and told him the wait was on for another donor.

Only weeks after the second transplant, Eli said, her son was working his swing on the driving range with the surgical staples still lodged in his chest. Some doctors and coaches weren't sure if Compton could ever again play professionally; Erik wasn't sure himself.

But in the end, Erik's will was just as strong as Isaac's heart. He was back playing competitive golf in the fall of 2008, and the former two-time All-American at Georgia ultimately qualified for the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (he missed the cut), and won the Web.com's Mexico Open the following year.

Compton made it back to the PGA Tour in 2012. His best finish on tour to date is a tie for fourth at the 2013 Honda Classic, and so far this season he has two top-five finishes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Zurich Classic. He qualified for Pinehurst by surviving a five-man sectional playoff in Columbus, Ohio, Jack Nicklaus' hometown.

Nicklaus invited Compton to lunch last week at his club, Muirfield Village, and predicted Erik would enjoy a special week. "He winked at me and said, 'Your game will suit Pinehurst,'" Erik recalled.

Yes, it has suited Pinehurst over three rounds. His mother saw it coming all along.

"I have always thought he would win a major," Eli said. "Why shouldn't he?"

Why not? Well, Compton needs to take more pills than he can count. He needs his medication, Eli said, so his immune system doesn't go one-on-one with Isaac's heart.

Saturday, he was fighting a spell of vertigo and the residuals of a recent battle with his allergies. Something as simple as the common cold can compromise his ability to function a whole lot more than the next guy's.

But with Kaymer way out in front, Compton made eagle on the par-5 fifth and delivered four birdies in a five-hole stretch, punctuated by a monster putt on the par-4 11th to position himself the people's choice on an emotional day.

"I have nothing to lose," Compton said. "Nobody expects me to do anything ... And if I go out and shoot 90 [Sunday], I don't think anybody will be surprised."

He said if he wins the U.S. Open, "I might just sail off and never play golf again." Either way, he plans to continue giving speeches and visiting hospitals to speak to children waiting for transplants of their own.

Compton will inspire them just by showing up on the first tee box on Father's Day. His old man Peter will be there, as he was Saturday, and Erik left open the possibility that his wife Barbara and daughter Petra might make the trip from their Florida home.

One other family will have a very real place in Erik's heart, too. The Comptons met the Klostermans at Nicklaus' Memorial tournament in 2009.

"We keep in touch with them and I don't know if they will be watching," Erik said, "but they're a very great family and they're a tight group. They have a special place here with me and what more can I say? I feel blessed to be able to play here, and without them I wouldn't be here."

Here at the 2014 U.S. Open, where a man with so much heart has a chance to capture America's one more time.

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