Of all those who play professional golf for a living, perhaps Erik Compton has the easiest time keeping it in perspective. Two heart transplants before the age of 30 have a way of grounding a person.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“As I’ve gotten older and more mature and had some life experiences, I have to say it has made golf less important to me,” said Compton, 35. “I used to put a lot more pressure on myself. I remember as a kid trying to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, and in some ways, it was bigger to me than the U.S. Open is now.”
As far as golf stories are concerned, they don’t get much bigger than Compton’s performance in the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in June. Granted, Martin Kaymer eventually left the field in the dust for an eight-stroke victory, but the improbable road that Compton traveled to his co-runner-up finish with Rickie Fowler resonated with sports fans everywhere.
“It’s something that I’ll have with me forever,” said Compton in mid-December, as he enjoyed a holiday break at home in Miami with his family. “It’s nice to be able to do it in a major championship, because you get so much exposure and there’s so much history behind it. I just felt very fortunate to have that opportunity.”
In effect, Compton’s championship began two weeks earlier in Columbus, Ohio, where 120 players were vying for one of 16 places in the field at Pinehurst. After 36 holes, Compton found himself in a five-way tie for three spots, and he sealed the final berth with a par on the second playoff hole, his 38th of the day.
“My U.S. Open was not just the 72 holes at Pinehurst, it was the 38 holes I played to get in,’’ said Compton. “It was 110 holes of golf – that’s what got me to second at the Open, and that’s crazy. How many guys have won the Open who went through qualifying?”
Only a handful of players have accomplished that feat, most recently Lucas Glover in 2009 at Bethpage Black. On Sunday at Pinehurst, Compton stood on the seventh green with a 15-foot birdie putt to get to 5 under par, but he proceeded to three-putt. From there, trailing Kaymer by six strokes, it became a race for second with Fowler.
“Coming down the stretch, it was difficult golf – I was just trying my best to make pars,” said Compton. “I knew that Rickie and I were battling it out and he was struggling a little bit, too.”
On No. 18, Compton missed the fairway, and he drew a difficult lie. His second shot failed to clear a crossing bunker well short of the green, leaving him with an awkward stance and a tough lie to retain his hold on second place.
“I had such a bad lie for my second shot,” Compton recalled. “I was just trying to advance it up near the green, and my face kind of dropped when I didn’t clear the bunker. I told my caddie, let’s do our best not to make a double.”
Compton took a 9-iron and provided the huge gallery surrounding the finishing hole with a world-class up-and-down.
“I was afraid of hitting it out of bounds over the green, and I didn’t want to leave it short because I didn’t know if I would be able to get that up and down,” said Compton. “I just tried to get it on the green so that it would run down the ridge, and it checked up perfectly.”
That left Compton with a testing 7-footer for par. “I told my caddie to just enjoy the moment. I hadn’t made many putts that day, so the putt was kind of a bonus. That par was one of the highlights of my week.”
The lofty finish in just his second major championship start (he missed the cut in the 2010 U.S. Open) provided some nice rewards that he was not expecting.
“I didn’t really know the perks that came with it,” said Compton. “I didn’t know I was going to get into the U.S. Open next year, didn’t know about the Masters [2015 exemption]. It was just a really cool thing.”
Compton and Fowler both made their strongest move on Saturday, with matching 3-under 67s, three strokes better than anyone else in the field on a day when the scoring average was the highest of the week (73.8). At the time, Compton didn’t realize how good his round was.
“I felt like I was playing the way I should be playing,” said Compton. “I’m sure there were lots of guys in the field who were feeling like I do 80 percent of the time. Sometimes you feel kind of helpless out there because you’re not controlling your ball and things aren’t going your way.”
Compton’s performance was his best finish, not just in a U.S. Open, but in more than 100 events on the PGA Tour.
“I didn’t win, but to be able to play and produce under the pressure of a U.S. Open, I just feel very grateful,” said Compton. “For Martin [Kaymer], to be able to do what he did – it’s such a fickle, hard game. Even the guys who have been able to dominate, they only win 15 or 20 percent of the time.”
Compton’s first heart transplant came at age 12, and he began playing golf as part of his rehabilitation. Within six years, he was the American Junior Golf Association’s top-ranked player. He played at the University of Georgia, where he was a second-team All-America player, and he earned a spot on the 2001 USA Walker Cup Team.
“I grew up admiring Tiger Woods, and I always watched what he did in the U.S. Amateur,” said Compton. “I had some disappointments in the Amateur. I remember losing to Jason Dufner in the first round [in 1998 at Oak Hill], and in 2001 at East Lake [in Atlanta], I was favored to do well, and I didn’t make match play. But I also have a lot of great memories from traveling with my dad and my family; I made some lifelong friends playing in USGA events.”
The biggest event – until the U.S. Open – was the 2001 Walker Cup Match in Sea Island, Ga., where Compton was part of a USA Team that lost, 15-9, to a Great Britain and Ireland side that featured Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell.
“It’s something I’ll never, ever forget: the ceremony and the tradition,” said Compton. “It was like playing a Tour event – no, it was more like a major championship.”
His 2015 schedule is guaranteed to include two majors: the Masters and the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay – no 36-hole qualifier required.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.