After changes of heart, Compton nears a milestone

YOU PLAY GOLF for a living after two heart transplants, you learn to economize. Economize your effort. Economize your emotions. Economize your, well, economics.

So there was 31-year-old Erik Compton yesterday, a few minutes after telling his "crazy, crazy story" again at the AT & T National at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, boiling down, to its essence, what finally winning his PGA Tour card 3 years after a second heart transplant would mean to him and his young family.

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"Next year I'll have full health insurance," said Compton, who Sunday posted his first Nationwide Tour victory in the Mexico Open. "If I go out on tour, they're going to have to pay out a lot of money."

A few feet away, his Argentinian wife Barbara smiled and nodded. Four years ago, while living in the same apartment building in Miami, she fell in love with this slight man with the easy smile and the rest was . . .

Well, not exactly.

Compton told her about this disease he contracted as a 9-year-old, something called viral cardiomyopathy, which enlarges the heart and hinders its ability to pump blood. It led to a heart transplant at age 12, and constant monitoring, but it all sounded like inconsequential gobbledygook until she paced outside that emergency room in 2007 after he suffered a heart attack. He received his second transplant in May 2008. Months of illness, weakness, adjustment, frustration followed.

"It was pretty hard," Barbara said. "But I was so in love with him."

He collapsed in that hospital lobby in the fall of 2007, just 2 days after missing the cut to a tournament. He was lucky then: Had he made the cut, his heart attack would have occurred on a golf course, not while fishing near a hospital. He was fortunate too, both at age 12 and again at 28, that people of his age had suffered unfortunate deaths - one a 15-year-old female victim of a drunken driver, the other an ex-collegiate volleyball player who died in a motorcycle accident.

It's the paradox of the transplant process, one that Compton has never ignored, even as a child. He has been a fervent transplant advocate and routinely gives lengthy interviews even when exhausted. There is no "woe is me" to his delivery, opting often for laughs rather than pathos.

"That's his whole family," said his wife. "They were able to laugh through all of this."

Compton said his parents got the second phone call when he won. His wife, watching on a computer back in Miami, received the first.

"She's been so good about everything," he said. "She's been with me when I went in for the transplant. She's been with me when I had nothing, when my parents and my friends had to help us out financially. She understands. Whether I play good or bad, she's always the same. She just wants me happy."

Sunday's victory at the Mexico Open meant so many things to him, to her and their 2 1/2-year-old daughter Petra, to the family and friends who have financed a career beaten down by those two faltering hearts. But the overriding emotion was the validation of a lifelong pursuit, or as he put it, "I'm not so much of a sideshow freak anymore.

"I've proved that I can play on the tour," he said.

The victory in Leon was his first on the Nationwide Tour, placed him second in earnings, and virtually assured the acquisition of a PGA Tour card, given to the top 25 money winners at year's end. He is at the AT & T this week on a sponsor's exemption, one of the few perks of his challenging condition. Given a cart when he first rejoined the tour in 2008, Compton now walks the four rounds required, managing his physical limitations carefully, limiting his practice time, resting at home for weeks.

His soulful story, his donor message, has understandably made him a popular invite, and a popular guy to watch. It also has allowed him to spread his message.

"When I go to tournaments and play on the PGA Tour, I think it makes a huge impact for people in the community," he said. "People find out about my story, and I think that's what the tour is all about - helping and giving back to others. So if there's a kid in the hospital or somebody that can be affected by me playing, I think that tournament wins every time."

Compton will tee off from the first tee at 1:06 today, paired with Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan. "A pretty marquee tee time," he said. In his fifth straight week of golf, after the emotion and implications of last weekend's win, he's banking on the crowd to recharge him. Then it's back home, for rest and a real recharge, an annual cardiac procedure that will be paid from his pocket, he hopes, for the last time.

"Everybody says they want to win 19 majors," Compton said.

"I'd just like to play in 19 majors."

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