News & Opinion

Spirit of humanity finds an eager partner in golf

Erik Compton
Erik Compton, a survivor of 2 heart-transplant operations, shows at age 41 that his dream of returning to the PGA Tour endures.

From medical miracle Erik Compton to lovable long shot Michael Visacki, game tends to amplify emotional sensibilities

Headlines can scream, but humanity whispers, stands apart from crowds and is even anonymous, making it difficult to tell which is – or should be – more powerful.

Erik Compton has the biggest borrowed heart in sports. His story has been told often over the years, that he’s twice a heart-transplant recipient – the second in 2008 – and continues to grind away at professional golf. But while his life has been extended by more than one medical miracle, his golf career is ticking away on borrowed time.

He’s 41 years old and floundering. In 25 events on the Korn Ferry Tour since January 2020, his highest finish has been a T-17. More importantly, he has made just shy of $51,000. Players with previous financial success wouldn’t be concerned with such a setback. Surely, they think, it’s temporary.

Compton is not one of those people. His new wife is a paralegal and is working seven days a week to help support the family. Compton has begun in his off days to give golf lessons at a course near Miami, where he has lived for years, to “do his part” to keep the household running.

He received a sponsor’s exemption to the Charles Schwab Challenge, which is an invitational on the PGA Tour and is a plum gift for someone such as Compton. The field was only 120 players, with no open qualifying. Remarkably, Compton found himself with a late starting time on Sunday, T-6 after three rounds at 7 under par. While Jason Kokrak and Jordan Spieth rightfully received most of the attention because they were competing for a trophy, Compton was three pairings behind, doing battle for his survival.

A top-15 finish would get Compton an invitation back to Colonial next year. A top-10 and he would gain entry into next week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree in South Carolina. A victory? No one, even Compton, could fathom that.

We wouldn’t even have been aware of Compton’s situation had he not stopped for a chat with CBS’ Amanda Balionis before his starting time for Sunday’s final round. For once, television told us a story we didn’t already know, and we’re better for it.

Compton’s ending doesn’t merit shouting about. He shot 3-over 73, finished T-20 and made a check for $68,437.50 – not much money by Tour standards, but it likely looks a lot larger to Compton, especially at the moment. No invitation next year, no entry at Congaree. Compton’s next opportunity will be this week’s Rex Hospital Open on the Korn Ferry Tour in Raleigh, N.C., where he has a 12:31 p.m. starting time on Thursday.

Compton’s world could have changed appreciably on Sunday. Patton Kizzire, paired with Compton in the final round, shot 67, finished T-3 and made a little north of $366,000. That’s how fragile golf can be.

Michael Visacki knows too well about the tenuous difference between the big leagues and the minors. He’s 27 and a mini-tour legend, winning 37 tournaments on something called the West Florida Golf Tour, racking up 170,000 miles on his 2010 Honda Accord in so doing. At Monday qualifying for the Valspar Championship, Visacki holed a 20-footer for birdie to win the playoff for the final spot, thereby gaining his first start on the PGA Tour.

Michael Visacki
Michael Visacki sheds a few tears while calling his father to say that he had Monday qualified for the 2021 Valspar Championship, his debut on the PGA Tour.

As tears streamed down Visacki's face, Mike Wolfe, a videographer for PGA Tour Entertainment, asked, “Do you mind if I throw a camera in your face?” Visacki called his father, a Yugoslavian immigrant who, like many golf parents, did all he could to enable his son to chase his dream. The conversation was on speaker, and the video went viral.

Visacki, known as “Big Mike,” missed the cut at the Valspar, which was no surprise. And he described how hardscrabble life is in golf’s hinterlands, despite the number of victories.

“It’s extremely hard,” Visacki said at the Valspar. “Sometimes entry fees are $400-$600, and if you don’t win or come second, I mean, you barely break even. Then, it’s not like every week is a free entry fee that we’re just playing for a prize. Like, if you miss two or three cuts and each cut, each tournament costs you $500, then in two, three weeks you’re down $1,500 just in entry fee, not alone practicing, having to worry about paying rent, phone bill, electricity, gas, hopefully the car’s not going to break down.

“Even with all my success, it’s still very, very, very hard to make a living. If I was having to pay rent, I still wouldn’t be able to play professional golf as much as I’ve won in the past.”

Visacki was shocked – and likely were many others – when Charles Schwab himself called to invite him to Colonial. Visacki failed to make the weekend in Fort Worth but this is where the story only begins. Justin Thomas invited Visacki for a practice round on Tuesday. After Big Mike missed the cut, he was standing by the clubhouse, talking with his father.

Thomas walked up and put something into Visacki’s hand. “I wanted you to have something from me,” he said. The two hugged and Thomas’ parting words were, “Keep chasing it.”

Thomas wrote Visacki a personal check to help with Big Mike’s journey. It’s likely that only the two of them will ever know the amount, which is fine because the number isn’t the most important aspect of this gesture.

One golfer with more than he needs selflessly reached out to another player who barely has enough to get by. If the situation had been reversed, would Visacki do the same for Thomas? Only he knows the answer.

Charles Schwab, a man with untold wealth, provided opportunity to two players who desperately needed it for totally unrelated reasons, without raising his voice. Was it wisdom or heart? In this case, it’s difficult – and unnecessary – to tell the difference.

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