- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- The number of clubs in his golf bag is surpassed by the abundance of pills he must pop each day. For Erik Compton, there is far more to golf than fairways and greens. The medicine-taking regimen is all part of the process.
It is something that Compton refuses to use as an excuse in his quest to gain his PGA Tour card just five months after a 14-hour operation necessary for a heart transplant.
But after a 3-over-par 75 on Wednesday at Crandon Golf Course near his Miami Beach home, Compton found himself well outside the number required to advance after two more rounds of the 72-hole first-stage qualifier.
And the reality of the situation -- compared to what he is trying to accomplish so soon -- suggests that Compton, 28, might be a bit hard on himself.
"I believe I should win this tournament," Compton said after his 36-hole total of 151 left him in a tie for 55th, five shots back of the score needed to advance to the next stage of qualifying. "I believe that. I wouldn't play if I didn't think so. I still think I can qualify. If I get it going, I can shoot 64 or 65 out here. I just have to get rid of that left shot. I'm trying really, really hard. I have to make it up tomorrow or the next day."
Compton was scratching his head about the number of hooks and pull shots he's been hitting. He's always been a fader of the golf ball, back to the days when he was an emerging golfer after his first heart transplant.
Back then, in 1992, Compton was 12 years old, and the medication necessary in the aftermath of that transplant caused serious side effects, including bloating.
"He was a brave guy just to go to school," said Peter Compton, Erik's father. "He looked like a pumpkin. The medication he's taking is trying to trick the body into not rejecting the heart. This time it has been much kinder to the body."
Compton said he takes seven or eight different pills, three times a day. On Tuesday, he was thrilled to learn that he would no longer need to take the steroids he's been on for 18 years. Results of recent blood work came back, Compton said, and his doctors told him he could quit taking the steroids.
Although he downplayed it afterward, some of the medication Compton takes causes jitteriness, which can show up in his short game.
"He's an inspiration to me and anybody who gets to know him," said Chip Sullivan, 43, the director of golf at Ashley Plantation in Daleville, Va., who played with Compton during the first two rounds. "He's got a great attitude. I'm sure it's hard for him right now. He's not playing to his capabilities. But what he's been through I think he's playing outstanding golf. He has to get used to his new heart.
"We were talking and he showed me how his hand was shaking out there on the course. I can't even imagine taking the club back and dealing with those kinds of things he's been through. It's just such a doggone inspirational story. I've never rooted for somebody as hard as I did this week. I'll still be rooting for him. Everybody should be. He's what golf needs."
Sullivan has been through the Q-school pressure cooker 18 times, having made it to the PGA Tour in 1997 before losing his card. He took the club pro job he has now in 1999, but still returns to the Q-school, thinking it would be nice to have his card and have a chance to play if he chooses.
In 2007, Sullivan won the PGA National Professional Championship and this year got into six PGA Tour events, making three cuts. So he's been around long enough to know the difficulty of this three-stage task, and some of the issues, including the fact that Compton was granted a cart by the PGA Tour because of his medical condition.
"I know when he asked the tour for one, I talked to several members and friends of mine back at the club and said this is a great chance for the PGA Tour to step up and do what's right. And they did," Sullivan said. "There's just no way you can look at it any other way. We need things like this to happen in golf, and this is what makes it all come together. And after you get to know him, he's such a real inspiration. He made me play better the last two days."
Sullivan shot a pair of 70s and is tied for the lead in the event in which it only matters that you finish among the top 23 and ties. Those players advance to next month's 72-hole second-stage qualifier. And from there it's on to the 90-hole, six-day final qualifier, which will determine PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour cards for 2009.
Compton, who recently shot 65 at Crandon Golf Course during a mini-tour event, is certainly not giving up. He admits there is a Plan B if he does not advance, and it includes trying to qualify for PGA Tour events on Mondays or perhaps going back to the Canadian Tour, where he won the money title in 2004.
But for now, he'd like to get his emotions under control, his swing back in sync. And he knows that is not necessarily easy for anybody trying to play this game.
"On the course, I am my own worst enemy," he said. "I'm such a hard-ass on myself. That's why I don't have success in the bigger events, why I've been king of the minor leagues. I play great. It's a mindset. Even after the transplant and all the stuff I've been through, I still come to the course as the same person -- a nut bag."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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