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June 15, 2014

Erik Compton finishes the U.S. Open in a tie for second, but after two heart transplants it felt more like first

Erik Compton and Rickie Fowler, a pair of Americans, never mounted a serious challenge to Martin Kaymer. Nonetheless, Compton’s story inspired thousands at Pinehurst No. 2.

Erik Compton wiped away tears after he made his final putt at the U.S. Open and then, moments later, he wore the runner-up medal around his neck. Rarely in the history of the U.S. Open had second place felt more like first.

The black-and-white results of the 2014 Open will show Rickie Fowler and Compton finished in a tie for second, both 1-under par, both eight shots behind Martin Kaymer, the German who led from start to finish and sucked all the drama out of Pinehurst No. 2 early Sunday, if not days ago.

What the results miss, though, is how Compton, who has had two heart transplants, captured the hearts of thousands who were searching for something – someone – to root for. They found it in Compton, who had his first heart transplant at 12 and his second one back in 2008, when he was 27.

Everywhere he walked Sunday, the sound of Compton’s name rung in his ears. He teed off in the second-to-final pairing – a place traditionally offering hope the day could end with a championship. That hope never existed Sunday, given Kaymer’s performance, but it didn’t matter. Compton was, in some ways, the people’s champion.

“On every hole, from the tee box to the putting green, people were cheering for me,” said Compton, 33, who lives in Coral Gables, Fla. “And I definitely felt the love and the support from the crowd. Seemed like people really got around my story.”

After it was over, Compton said he felt like he’d won. In a lot of ways, he had.

His life was in danger in 2007, when he drove himself to a hospital amid a heart attack. The second heart transplant came in May 2008 and thoughts of golf took a backseat to thoughts of recovery, and healing.

Gradually, he worked his way back onto the Web.Com Tour, and he was good enough there to earn a place on the PGA Tour in 2012. Before this week, Compton had played in one U.S. Open – in 2010. He didn’t make the cut, and just to make it to Pinehurst he had to advance through a sectional qualifier.

Compton’s performance in Pinehurst provided the Open with its most uplifting story, though as inspiring as it was it didn’t come out of nowhere. Compton arrived in Pinehurst with a pair of top-five finishes this season – at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Zurich Classic – but nobody could have foreseen this.

Years ago, after that second transplant, merely playing might have been considered an accomplishment. He spoke after his round about his story and about inspiration. He spoke of perseverance.

“You can’t ever give up,” Compton said. “I mean, we all have adversity in our lives. Some are different than others. Some are more major. The up and down on 18 is an example of never giving up.”

On his final hole, Compton said he hit the “world’s worst shot” into a bunker. He got out of it and then made his putt for par.

During his first pro season in 2002 on the Web.Com Tour, Compton made a little more than $21,000. In 24 PGA Tour events last year, he made about $650,000. His paycheck for finishing in a tie for second at the U.S. Open: $789,329.50. He also secured a place in the 2015 Masters.

There was a roar in the grandstand when Compton made his final putt – the kind of roar usually reserved for a tournament-defining birdie, or for some other dramatic, improbable moment. Perhaps this qualified – Compton finishing his round and walking off the course in a tie for second place.

Down the 18th fairway, at the sound of that roar, Fowler thought Compton had in fact made a birdie.

“And I’m like ‘I’ve got to go make birdie on the last hole to finish in a tie with him,’ ” Fowler said. “ It was fun, and kind of fun to have our own little battle in the back of the pack for the second tournament going on.”

After Compton’s heart transplant in 2008, he set up a friendly round with Fowler. They knew each other through acquaintances and, even though Compton is years older, he looked up to Fowler – then an up-and-coming player.

They played some golf back then, years ago. They also went fishing. There’s only one runner-up medal for the second-place finisher in a U.S. Open, and so Compton said on Sunday that “we’re going to fish off for the medal.”

That drew some laughs. Fowler, like Compton, was among the fan favorites on Sunday. He arrived in his usual Sunday orange – an homage to Oklahoma State, where he played collegiately – and wherever he went cheers of “Let’s go Rick-ie!” and the like followed him.

The spectators hoped for Fowler to make a run – hoped for compelling drama to emerge. They didn’t find it – at least not in the traditional way – while Kaymer’s lead became ever more insurmountable. Yet they found a story worth cheering, anyway, and when he ended his round Compton had never been happier to finish in second.

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