Months after heart transplant, Compton cards 76 in first stage of Q-school

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Charlie DeLucca gets emotional when talking about the subject. How could he not? He was around the first time Erik Compton got a new heart and needed the use of a cart to play golf.

Back then, it was a pull cart. Now it's the four-wheel version, one that Compton drove across the fairways of Crandon Golf Course on Tuesday morning during the first round of first-stage PGA Tour Qualifying as a smattering of spectators, including his father, mother and pregnant wife, Barbara, followed along.

It wasn't history-making -- Casey Martin set the precedent when he won a Supreme Court decision in 2001 allowing the use of a golf cart in PGA Tour co-sponsored events under the guidelines of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

But it was pretty incredible nonetheless.

"To do what he's done ... he's just a special person," said DeLucca, who was also in Compton's gallery to watch the round of 76 that came just five months and a day after receiving his second heart transplant at nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital.

As competitive as Compton is, the 76 was disappointing. But for a guy who could not swing a club until three months ago, who will welcome a baby girl to the family in February, and who tries to be an inspiration to other transplant patients, it was a pretty good day.

"It really does seem like yesterday I was laying in [the hospital] and had tubes in me," Compton said. "I try not to put myself there that much. I use it as a building block. I obviously have come very, very far in five months. The tour is very hard, but this is what I want to do. Getting through here would be a blessing. But it's going to be difficult."

Compton's round left him tied for 49th in the 78-player field. The top 23 players and ties after 72 holes will advance to second-stage qualifying next month and Compton was 3 shots back of that number.

DeLucca -- the executive director of the First Tee Miami-Dade Amateur Golf Association where 28-year-old Miami native Compton honed his golf skills before his first heart transplant at age 12 -- has seen it all. Compton's ascension to No. 1 junior golf in the country. A college career at Georgia. The struggles to make it as a pro. His near-fatal heart attack last year and subsequent need for a new heart.

Few thought Compton would ever play again, much less compete, when he suffered a heart attack on Oct. 3, 2007. He went so far as to give all of his clubs away.

"He's in a hurry to do this now," DeLucca said. "He's driven, and sometimes that's taken as being cocky. But you don't know what his life is going to be or how long his life is going to be.

"He pushes it to the edge, he's all golf, works hard, teaches to try and make some money. He's fighting to make it, and let me tell you, nobody is going to hold him back. He just has tremendous determination. And he's not afraid to work hard."

At age 12, Compton was the youngest heart-transplant patient in Miami Jackson's history -- and he used golf to regain his health. He got good enough to become an American Junior Golf Association star, rising to the organization's No. 1 ranking.

That meant college coaches came knocking at his door, and Compton eventually chose Georgia, where he was a second-team All-American and first-team All-SEC selection in 2001 and helped lead the Bulldogs to consecutive SEC titles.

He played on a U.S. Walker Cup team, a Palmer Cup team, and finished 16th at the NCAA Tournament. Then he turned pro after his junior year.

"Coming out of junior golf, he was one of the best players in the country," Georgia golf coach Chris Haack said. "And at Georgia, where we've had a lot of good ball-strikers, he was right up there with them best of them. We always saw his potential to get out there and play, and it was always a matter of if his health would hold up.

"But you would have never known anything was different with him. He worked out with the guys, did everything. It almost got to the point where you forgot what he had gone through. People never cut him any slack, and that's the way he wanted it."

Since turning pro in 2001, Compton has bounced around various mini tours, the Nationwide Tour and the Canadian Tour, never making it to the PGA Tour. This is his seventh trip to the qualifying tournament. Late last year, he began to feel fatigued much more often, a sign that his heart was weakening. The heart attack was an indication that the transplanted heart, which had served him for nearly 16 years, was not going to last much longer.

In March, Compton needed a surgical procedure and was put on a transplant list. On May 20, Compton got his third heart. And it wasn't long before he was back playing golf. But trying to make it to the PGA Tour?

"It was always a nice dream," said Erik's dad, Peter, who walked the entire qualifying round. "It's just amazing. He was a little jittery, you could tell especially in the short game. But there's no quit, no matter what the outcome."

To make it, Compton will have to endure three stages of PGA Tour Qualifying. The Key Biscayne qualifier is one of 12 around the country. From those six second-stage qualifiers (72-hole events), approximately 120 players will advance to the finals, where a field of about 170 will compete over 90 holes at PGA West in California, with the top 30 and ties earning their PGA Tour cards for 2009.

Last year, nine players made it through all three stages to earn their PGA Tour cards. Also, 69 players advanced through the first two stages to the finals, which assures at least conditional status on the Nationwide Tour.

"I saw him in August, and three months after the transplant, you wouldn't have known," said PGA Tour player Len Mattiace, who is friends with Compton and sees him at nearby Doral, where they work with instructor Jim McLean. "He looks normal. He's not tall, but he's solid. In the past, he's always been known to be one of the longer hitters. He's got some power punch. It's just amazing. Erik is surviving. He is upbeat. He's positive. He's courageous. Those are the kind of words that come to mind when I think of him. More people need to take a page out of his book. We all have our daily battles. He is on the right road."

Compton petitioned the PGA Tour for use of a cart in the qualifier, and after PGA Tour executives reviewed his medical records and consulted with a tour doctor, they granted him the cart, which he will be allowed to use through all stages of tour qualifying and any tour-sanctioned events he enters through March, when he can reapply.

According to the PGA Tour, only four other players since Martin have been permitted to use a cart, although none ever made it to the Q-school finals or into a PGA Tour event.

Because Compton must take various medications due to his heart transplant, he would likely be hard-pressed to pass a drug test, which is now done randomly on the PGA Tour. So he was also given a waiver for a beta blocker he takes.

It's a lot different than when Compton's mom, Eli, went to DeLucca back in the early 1990s and asked if her son could use a pull cart.

"We only let the kids pull a cart if they were 9 or under," DeLucca said. "All the rest had to carry, so they learn how to carry the bag. But his mom was very persistent and then we learned what he was going through.

"Every year after the operation, we would celebrate the transplant, like it was a birthday. … We'd have a birthday party every year. It went on and on. He had all kinds of rejections and had to take all kind of pills. But he overcame all that. Maybe it helped make him tough. The kids all loved him because he was always a fighter."

Since he stopped playing the Nationwide Tour a year ago to deal with his health issues, Compton lost his endorsements. He now has the Miami-based Transplant Foundation on his golf bag, as well as his cap and shirt. His mother, who is the executive director of the foundation, probably put it best.

"It truly is an amazing miracle," Eli Compton said while following her son. "To think of what he has gone through these last few months."

Compton was thinking more about a few shots gone awry, a few putts that stayed out of the hole, only to remind himself of where he's been and what he's gone through.

"I'm hard on myself," he said. "But the truth is, it doesn't matter if I would have shot 100 today. The fact that I'm out playing and competing and able to live an active life … that's what it's all about. The gift somebody else has given me is a new lease on life. There are so many people out there in my situation, I do it for them as well."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.