What I'll Remember About 2013: Compton full of class ... and smiles

Compton accepts PGA TOUR Courage Award

Commissioner Tim Finchem and Erik Compton talk about the significance of the PGA TOUR Courage Award.
November 25, 2013
By Tom Alter, PGA TOUR vice president of communications

PGATOUR.COM asked its staffers and writers what they will remember about the 2013 season. For the archived list of essays and a complete review of the season, click here.

Erik Compton was one of the feel-good stories from the 2013 PGA TOUR season. After a disappointing 2012, Compton finished T7 at q-school to regain his status on TOUR. He parlayed some good early play, highlighted by a tie for fourth at The Honda Classic, into a top 125 finish in the FedExCup for the first time in his career. He is now fully exempt for the 2013-14 season, and full of life. This wasn’t always the case.

Compton is a two-time heart transplant recipient. Before his second heart transplant, he drove himself to the emergency room while he was having a heart attack. He thought he might not survive. Compton didn’t just survive, though; he thrived. He made it all the way back to pursue his dream of playing golf on the biggest stage of all. And his success last season was the inspiration for him to be recognized in October with the inaugural PGA TOUR Courage Award. Nobody is more deserving.

I got the chance to see Compton’s fighting spirit during the final round of The Barclays, the opening event of the FedExCup Playoffs. Of the 125 players in the field, just the top 100 in points would advance to the following week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. Compton arrived at Liberty National in 117th place and likely needed to finish somewhere around 40th place to move inside the top 100.

During the FedExCup Playoffs, my role in the PGA TOUR’s communications department is to be outside of the scoring area on site to advise players, their families, caddies, the media, etc. who’s in and who’s out. It can be stressful. Tracking how the players are jockeying on the leaderboard and then comparing how that affects the ever-changing FedExCup standings can be like trying to juggle Jell-O.

It can also be rewarding. Moments after Compton signed for a final-round 70, I had the pleasure of telling him that he had made it. For 72 holes, he shot even par, and he walked off the course tied for 45th, which would give him 542 FedExCup points and move him to 97th in the points standings. Compton’s caddie let out a booming “Whoop!” in celebration. Erik simply smiled a grin that was so big it almost didn’t fit his face; his smile belied the satisfaction of coming through in the clutch mixed with the relief of knowing he could finally relax. He was moving on, and his dream of claiming the $10 million FedExCup bonus was still alive.

But my role advising players can also be stressful. Within the next hour, several players made surprising late charges up The Barclays leaderboard. Henrik Stenson’s run to the FedExCup title really began here; after consecutive double bogeys to finish the front side, Stenson went on a birdie binge on the back nine. Paired with Stenson, John Merrick -- who was 6 over over through 11 holes in the final round -- also bounced back with four consecutive birdies. Their strong finishes threatened to pass Compton on the leaderboard and decrease his FedExCup points. Without enough points, he might not make the top 100.

All of a sudden, it wasn’t a done deal. I had to find Erik to tell him.

Liberty National’s clubhouse is one of the coolest pieces of architecture on the “other side” of the Hudson River. But when you’re running from room to room to find a player, to tell him that the good news you gave him was a bit premature, and to make sure he hasn’t already left the building, you’re not too concerned with style or function. I found Erik relaxing on a couch, talking on the phone with family. Seated opposite him was his father, as well as renowned swing coach Jim McLean. 

Erik raised his eyebrows when he saw me, and hung up the phone. I explained to him that a series of fluke finishes from other players still on the course put his advancing in the Playoffs in jeopardy. He was probably going to make it, but it was no longer a lock.  We’d have to wait and watch.

Of all the people in the entire world, I figured Erik was the best person who could handle hearing bad news. A double heart transplant recipient must be amazingly resilient, right? And it wasn’t necessarily bad news -- it was just potentially bad news. Nonetheless, PGA TOUR players are highly competitive athletes. So my heart was in my throat waiting on Erik’s reaction. He simply smiled that big grin again. We agreed he’d sit tight, and I’d come back with an update in about an hour.

Minutes later, some players still on the course started to falter. Jonas Blixt, who started the day tied for sixth with a chance to win, shot a final-round 81 and finished three strokes below Compton. Others trying to finish inside the top 100 couldn’t close the deal.  John Senden shot a final-round 75 to finish 109th. Aaron Baddeley stumbled home with three consecutive bogeys to shoot 77, and dropped to an agonizing 101st.

Erik was going to make it. Definitely.

I scampered back through the clubhouse looking forward to telling him the good news.  Compton was still sitting on the same section of the couch. And he was still smiling.  He’d been following the CBS telecast, and knew he was in. He finished The Barclays in a tie for 43rd place with 545 points, good enough for 94th in FedExCup. Now I was the one sporting a smile of relief. I congratulated him on advancing in the Playoffs, and told him I looked forward to advising him at TPC Boston on his progress as he competed for one of the top 70 spots for the BMW Championship.

I’ll remember a few valuable lessons learned during that final round of The Barclays: 1) The players really, really care about the FedExCup; 2) Predicting finishes on the PGA TOUR is dangerous business, and 3) I shouldn’t get ahead of my blocking when advising players.

What I’ll remember most, though, is that Erik Compton is a gentleman. He has succeeded despite his medical challenges by applying a gritty but good-natured attitude toward managing his health and his career, and by treating people with class.