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Change of heart

For Erik Compton (M ’02), golf began as a rehabilitation activity but became a career

Sitting in the player’s lounge at Jennings Mill Country Club after a practice round for the Athens Regional Foundation Classic in April, Erik Compton (M ’02) looks as normal as the other pro golfers in the crowded room.

He’s smaller than most of them at 5-feet-8, 150 pounds, but don’t let that fool you—he ranks among the top 10 in driving distance on the Nationwide Tour, with an average of almost 300 yards.

When he talks about his game, there’s a sparkle in his eyes and his voice drops almost to a whisper, as if he knows something the other guys don’t.

Maybe it’s because he’s faced odds that likely no else in the room has. He almost lost his life in 1992, and there’s an eight-inch scar under his golf shirt to prove it.

Compton had a heart transplant at the age of 12, and he is believed to be the first heart transplant recipient to compete in the U.S. Amateur, to earn a scholarship to an NCAA Division I school and to play in a PGA Tour event.

As a boy growing up in Miami, Compton was an All-Star Little League shortstop who was the fastest kid in his class. He excelled in team sports like baseball, football and soccer. “That was all I ever lived for,” he says.

At age 9, he got a cold that wouldn’t go away. The diagnosis was crushing: congestive cardiomyopathy, a virus that caused his heart to enlarge and beat irregularly.

By the time he was 11, he was weak, he vomited regularly and he was nearly blind. Doctors said he wouldn’t survive without a transplant.

A year later, a teenage girl in Tampa, fatally injured in a car accident, provided a heart for Compton.

While he was recuperating, Hurricane Andrew moved through Miami, destroying his childhood home. His family moved to an apartment while their home was rebuilt. It just happened to be next to a golf course.

Golf was the perfect rehabilitation for Compton, who was not allowed to play contact or extreme sports. At first he was so weak and his chest was so sore he could barely hit the ball off the tee box. Within a year he broke 80 and began to play competitively. He became the top junior player in the world.

College scholarship offers poured in. Compton chose UGA because of its proximity to Emory University Medical Center, and because of UGA’s outstanding golf program.

Compton was a redshirt on the 1999 team that won the national title. The next two years he was an All-Conference and All-American. He left in 2001 to become a professional.

Compton, who still takes anti-rejection medication, says his dream is to earn a permanent spot on the PGA Tour.

He shot a 76 on Thursday, and came back with an impressive 66 on Friday at Jennings Mill, missing the cut by a stroke. But he doesn’t dwell on what could have been; instead he thinks about the girl whose heart has allowed him to live.

“The journey of what I am doing is for two people,” he says. “The person that saved my life deserves all the credit for what I am trying to accomplish.

(above) Former UGA golfer Eric Compton tees off on the seventh hole during a practice round for the Athens Regional Foundation Classic tournament at Jennings Mill Country Club.

Photo by Dot Paul

Jason Peevy is campaign communications coordinator at UGA.

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