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One-over 73 costs Compton a shot at further glory

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. -- The ball soared through the air, high and straight, the kind of shot only a professional golfer can hit. Unless the smattering of observers was familiar with the story, there was no way they could have known the man swinging the club endured a 14-hour operation six months ago to receive a new heart.

Erik Compton showed he has plenty of that on Saturday, even if his effort came up one shot short of his goal of advancing to the final stage of the PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament next month.

The beautiful shot on the par-5 16th hole at Southern Hills Plantation had seemingly set up the birdie he would need, but Compton -- trying to make an eagle -- rammed the putt past the hole, then missed the 4-footer coming back. Two pars coming in were not enough, as Compton finished an agonizing one shot -- or two players -- short of the top 20 and ties who will advance.

"If you live and die by the way I play and live life, it will catch up with you,'' said Compton, after signing for a 1-over-par 73 left him in a tie for 22nd. "The pressure definitely got to me and I'm disappointed in that.''

Compton, after opening the 72-hole event with rounds of 70-70-69, was within the cut line by two shots when the day began. After bogeying the second and third holes, Compton rallied with birdies at the seventh and ninth. A three-putt bogey at the 11th was followed by a birdie at the 12th, and had he simply been able to par in from there or make that birdie at the 16th, Compton would be teeing it up at PGA West next month with a chance to earn his PGA Tour card or Nationwide Tour card for 2009.

But he missed the par-4 15th with a pitching wedge from 125 yards, blowing it over the green, and failed to get it up and down for par. "I'm just praying that everyone else is choking like me," Compton muttered.

When he failed to make the birdie at the 16th, it became apparent that Compton was no longer safe. As he got off his cart at the 17th green, he quipped, "Like to make it interesting for you guys, huh? If I don't make a par or a birdie, it's back to teaching."

Compton did par the last two holes, getting up and down from off the green at the 18th to save the slim chance he had. It wasn't enough, as 21 players managed to finish at 281, 7 under par. Compton finished at 282.

Todd Demsey and Camilo Benedetti were co-medalists at 275, 13 under par. Among those who advanced were former PGA Tour winners John Huston, Robert Gamez and Michael Bradley.

"I played very well, I gave myself a lot of opportunities,'' Compton said. "I just put myself in a situation where I was right on the edge.''

It was obvious that Compton, 28, was exhausted, despite the fact that he had been granted the use of a cart due to his medical condition. Three weeks ago, he made it out of the first-stage qualifier by shooting a final-round 68 and advancing on the number. Last week he played in the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic, where he made the cut and tied for 60th.

"He would have had zero chance to play if he had to walk. Zero,'' said Jim McLean, the noted instructor from the Doral Golf Resort in Miami who has worked with Compton for years. "There's no way he should be playing. No way he should be competing at this level. I'm very proud of him.''

McLean has worked with Compton since Compton was a junior golfer. And he was around back in May when it became apparent that Compton's life was in danger without a second heart transplant.

Compton was born with a heart condition that necessitated a heart transplant at age 12. After that, Compton became an excellent player, starred at the University of Georgia, then turned pro and bounced around the Nationwide Tour and various mini tours.

Last October, just two days after missing the cut at a Nationwide event in Boise, Idaho, Compton was back home fishing in Florida when he knew something was wrong. He drove himself to the hospital, where it was discovered he had 100 percent blockage in one of his arteries. He had a heart attack, and it was clear a new heart would be necessary.

"They don't give you a heart transplant unless you are about to die,'' said McLean, who followed Compton on Saturday. "We were hoping he might be able to get one by now, but he got one in three months. It was just amazing. There happened to be someone who died, who was a donor, whose heart was the right size and blood type matched.

"And to think you are going to come back and play a professional sport."

McLean never would have thought that was possible in the days and weeks after the surgery. "It hurt so much,'' he said, "Erik said, 'If I had to do it over again, I think I'd rather die.' And I don't think he was kidding.''

But slowly Compton got back to playing golf, and soon enough he was hitting his drives past McLean's.

That he made it to the second stage of qualifying and came within a single stroke of advancing to the six-day, 90-hole finals is nothing short of remarkable.

Compton was taking little consolation in that afterward, but he quickly put things in perspective, remaining not quite sure of his immediate future.

"Maybe this is for the best,'' he said. "I'll go back and relax. Maybe I'll do some teaching, playing in a few tournaments. I'm a big believer in fate."

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