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Column: Erik Compton's road to US Open contention required more heart than most

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PINEHURST, N.C. - Golfers like to say nothing rivals the pressure of coming down the stretch in contention at a major championship. Erik Compton knows better.

The 34-year-old journeyman fired a 3-under 67 to put himself squarely in the mix Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2 — tied for second at 3 under, though still five strokes behind leader Martin Kaymer. And Compton did it without his pulse racing or his heart beating unusually fast. Good thing, too, because he's on his third heart.

You read that right. Compton would rather be known for his golf than what he has overcome, but he has never been on a stage nearly this big. And this is what he has overcome to finally step out onto it:

Compton needed a heart transplant at 12, then again six years ago, not long he had a heart attack while driving home from a lesson with longtime coach Charlie DeLucca. That one was what doctors refer to as a "widow-maker." Convinced he wasn't going to survive the 20 minutes he needed to drive himself to the hospital, Compton called his mother, Eli, to tell her goodbye.

"He said, 'Mom, I'm not going to make it.' He said goodbye to all of us," Eli Compton recalled, standing not far from the 18th green, where her son had just exited to a thunderous ovation. "I said, 'Stop. Call 911.'

"He didn't," she sighed. "Somehow, he made it."

A reporter asked her what made her son so tough, so determined not to stop.

"He's half-Norwegian," she said, breaking into a wide grin. "And we didn't allow it."

Compton isn't shy about sharing his story, but he tries to be as businesslike as possible on the course. That's why he likes to stay far from family and friends on tournament days, especially at a major (even though this is only his second). Being pretty tough herself, Eli Compton looked at the scoreboard before he teed off, saw the wave of high scores posted by the morning group, and told him about it, anyway.

"I just told her to get up and walk away," Compton laughed.

"I love my parents and I love all my friends," he added quickly, "but you just don't want to hear about what's going on, because you need to get ready when you go play. It doesn't matter what anybody else does, it matters what you do. I decided that I was going to hit fairways and greens and try and make the best executions I can. That's all you can ask yourself to do."

For most of his pro career, interrupted as it was by that second heart attack, that hasn't been enough. Compton was the No. 1-ranked junior in the United States at 18, a two-time All-American at Georgia, but he's spent way more time battling second-stringers and up-and-comers on the Web.com and Canadian tours than he has against the best out on the PGA Tour.

With full playing privileges on the big tour this year, Compton is having his best season ever — 19 starts, 13 made cuts and a pair of top-10 finishes. His sense that his game was coming around, that it might just be up to major championship-calibre, picked up another important endorsement two weeks ago at the Memorial.

"I had lunch with Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield and he kind of winked at me and said, 'Your game will suit Pinehurst,'" Compton said. "So he had a smile on his face and it was kind of neat to ... when I qualified, I let him know that I qualified."

Compton doesn't downplay the inspirational part of his story, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve, either. No matter. It's well-known inside the golfing world, which explains why Chi Chi Rodriguez, another former great, rang him up early Saturday.

"He told me I was going to go out and shoot 64 and he was ... he told me how tough I was," Compton said. "There's different characters of the game that I feel like I've gained strength from and it's nice to have the greats take an interest in me. ...

"Maybe it's just kind of a self-fulfilling thing that I brought on myself," he said. "But I felt like I was going to have a great week this week."

Not everyone buys that. Rickie Fowler, who was tied for second with Compton, called his pal, "a sneaky good player. I look at him definitely as an equal competitor.

"Look at his results," Fowler added a moment later, "and you'll see he definitely deserves this."

Eli Compton seconded that notion. Someone asked her whether she could have imagined a day when her son's unyielding attitude would carry him all the way to the last day of a U.S. Open with a chance to win. She didn't hesitate.

"I always thought he would win a major," Eli Compton replied. "With all the work he's done, why shouldn't he?

Why not indeed?

___

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org and follow him at http://www.twitter.com/JimLitke

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