Golf

Golfer who has had two heart transplants is in contention at Wichita Open

New name, new feel for Wichita Open

(FILE VIDEO -- 2018) The Wichita Open has a new name and a new feel at Crestview Country Club this year.
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(FILE VIDEO -- 2018) The Wichita Open has a new name and a new feel at Crestview Country Club this year.

From his home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Jeremy Gant smiled when he saw Erik Compton’s name near the top of the leaderboard at the Wichita Open on Friday.

Compton, who finished tied for second place at the 2004 Wichita Open, has rekindled the magic from 15 years ago this week at the North Course at Crestview Country Club. After firing a 3-under round of 67 on Friday, Compton is in a four-way tie for third place, one of the leaders at 9-under heading into the weekend rounds.

Gant and Compton haven’t spoken for a few years, but Gant still draws inspiration from their first talk nearly nine years ago, a one-hour phone conversation in the days after Gant, who was 19 at the time and a golfer at Newman University in Wichita, discovered he required a heart transplant.

It was calming then for Gant to hear from a professional golfer in Compton, who is now on his second heart transplant.

And now to see that same golfer in contention in Gant’s old hometown on a course he played many times, a sense of pride swelled in Gant.

“There’s been a lot of challenges after my transplant and a lot of things come at you, Erik can tell you that,” Gant said in a phone interview. “Almost every day or every month or every year, something pops up at you. But I always think back to Erik and our conversation and his story. If he can do all of that and play on the PGA Tour, then surely I can get through the small problems that I’m going through now.

“To see him (near the top of the leaderboard) in Wichita and on his second heart playing this well, it’s so awesome. I’m always rooting for him, but especially this week.”

Compton’s story of overcoming the odds as a double heart transplant to play on the PGA Tour, even finishing in a tie for second place in the 2014 U.S. Open, is well-known around the tour.

But what isn’t as well-known is how Compton has been an inspiration to those who have also had heart transplants.

“The better I play the more notoriety I get about my transplant, but my story is a has-been story,” Compton said. “I think people are waiting on me to play well again, even though I think my story, personally, gets better and better every week the further I get along with the transplants. It’s almost 25 years now. I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

“I think even just this round today (at the Wichita Open) is as good of an accomplishment as when I played at the U.S. Open because this is really hard. I put my body under extreme stress to play in this weather, and it’s hard for anybody even without a transplant.”

It’s that kind of determination that has been an inspiration to Gant, who was terrified when he found out on October 10, 2010 that his heart was functioning at 10 percent and would die within years if he did not have the surgery.

The news was a total shock to Gant, who considered himself in the best shape of his life and even won a bodybuilding contest just before. When word got out in the golf world, Compton gave Gant a call when he was waiting on a heart transplant at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

“I remember asking him if I would ever have my life back because I was 19 at the time and freaking out,” Gant said. “Will I ever golf again? Will I have a family? There was a ton of things on my mind.

“I’ll never forget him saying, ‘Well, I’ll tell you this: Right now I’m sitting with my wife and kids and we’re having a nice dinner together and if that’s not a life, then I don’t know what is.’ That gave me the courage to push forward and get through that process.”

After the transplant, Gant, a Chanute native, was able to finish out his golfing career at Newman and graduate with a master’s in Business Administration in 2014. He started working for Koch Industries out of college, but has since moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to work as a senior financial analyst for Lockheed Martin.

There are still day-to-day struggles for Gant in his post-transplant life. Since he no longer has an immune system, he’s susceptible to illnesses more than normal. He has to take pills to combat that, which can be a little much some days. But that normal life Gant was worried he would never have again? It’s closer to normal than even Gant could have imagined.

“We just have to go through a little bit more than most people, but everything is good,” Gant said.

Compton’s courage as a double heart transplant has also motivated someone else with Wichita connections. When Compton first came to the Wichita Open in 2004, his host family was the Sorlie’s in Andover, whose youngest son, Matthew, also had a heart transplant when he was 3-months-old.

Matthew Sorlie, now 24, grew up to be a golfer himself for Collegiate in part because of Compton and even won a team state championship with the Spartans.

“I think he’s actually inspired me more,” Compton said of Sorlie. “For one, he’s on his first transplant and he’s had it for almost 24 years now. He’s bigger, taller, and better-looking than me and he has a bright future. I don’t think I’ve inspired him any more than he’s inspired me.”

Usually the Sorlie family would be out in full force to cheer on Compton, but they are on vacation this week. That hasn’t stopped them from offering up their home and car for Compton to use this week in his pursuit for a championship.

Compton hopes the attention of his standout play this week can help raise awareness for heart-transplant recipients.

“I think it all pays it forward for all of us,” Compton said. “There’s going to be, I hope more transplant recipients to play on the PGA Tour. That would be super cool to see other guys who have gone through what I’ve gone through. If they see that I can do it, then they can as well.”

Gant won’t be playing on the PGA Tour, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t inspired by Compton all these years later.

“It’s kind of destiny, isn’t it?” Gant said. He’s one of the best guys I know and if I had to pick anyone to win, I would pick him. I think he’s due for something big. I would tell Erik to go out there and trust his game and be yourself and know that God has a plan and come Sunday, I think he’ll be in position to bring home that championship.”

Scheffler and Alexander tied for lead at 10-under: There is a two-way tie at the top of the leaderboard after Friday’s second round, as Scottie Scheffler and Tyson Alexander each carded 6-under rounds of 64 on to move into a tie for first at 10-under with a 1-shot lead.

Scheffler finished his round with two eagles, the first on the par-4 No. 7 when he capitalized on the down wind and nearly drove the green 456 yards away, then chipped in from 40 yards. The next was more standard, as Scheffler made easy work of the par 5 No. 15 with a bomb off the tee, a 4-iron on the green and a made 25-footer.

For a two-month stretch from late March to May, Scheffler reeled off a tournament victory, a pair of runner-up finishes and five top-10 finishes in five tournament. He is currently ranked No. 3 on the points list on tour.

“I feel like my game is in a really good spot right now,” Scheffler said. “I’ve been in a good place mentally. Not letting little things bothering me. Today I got off to a slow start, and maybe a year ago I wouldn’t be able to get it going like I did today.”

Alexander also had an eagle on a chip-in on the par 4 No. 16 to highlight a 5-under back nine. Alexander had three chip-ins on his round and a total of 19 putts.

“When you do something like that, then you know it’s your day,” Alexander said. “Today was a little weird because my irons were just a little off and in this kind of wind if you’re just a little off, then sometimes your misses can be worse than they really are. My short game was just incredible today.”

Bryan Bigley_Stelz Phot (8).JPG
Bryan Bigley claims he’s one bad tournament away from retiring from the Korn Ferry Tour. But after a 6-under round of 64 on Friday, Bigley finds himself near the top of the leaderboard heading into the weekend at the Wichita Open. Dale Stelz Courtesy

Time to re-book that flight: Forgive Bryan Bigley for not having much confidence in his chances of contending this week at the Wichita Open.

It took a handful of golfers to withdraw to get in for Bigley, who entered the week with a 73.9 scoring average that ranked 150th out of 151 golfers on the Korn Ferry Tour and has either missed the cut or withdrawn in 10 his 12 starts.

But Bigley has found a hot streak in Wichita, as he fired a 6-under round of 64 Friday to move up into a four-way tie for third place at 9-under.

“I actually already had a flight booked home for (Friday night),” Bigley said. “It’s been a terrible year. I guess I’ll have to change it to Sunday now.”

Bigley said his uneven play has made him consider retiring from the game altogether this year.

“I’m always one bad tournament away from actually hanging it up,” Bigley said.

So what keeps him coming back?

“Stupidity,” Bigley said, laughing. “That’s the definition of being insane, isn’t it? Doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results?”

Bigley’s biggest pay check from the Korn Ferry Tour has been $23,450, a total he would exceed if he notches a top-5 finish this weekend.

“Golf is one of those games where you just need to get hot for three weeks,” Bigley said. “I’ve always felt my game has been okay, even though the results haven’t shown it. But if I can just get hot for three weeks, then who knows what can happen.”

Chase Hanna in the chase: Chase Hanna, who played at KU from 2013-17, closed with four birdies to highlight a 5-under round of 65 to move up to a tie for 12th place at 6-under.

It’s rare for a sponsor exemption to be near the top of the leadership, but Hanna has capitalized on the opportunity given by the Wichita Open. Hanna, who is making just his third start on the Korn Ferry Tour this season, said he would have been an alternate if not for the exemption.

“It’s awesome getting the opportunity to play this week and I’m thankful to get the chance to play in front of my family,” Hanna said. “I’ve been struggling with my putting for a long time, but I got it figured out today and made some putts and hit my irons great.”

Hanna, a Kansas City native, also gave his thoughts on seeing a fellow former Jayhawk, Gary Woodland, win the U.S. Open last weekend.

“He’s such a great guy, and I’m just thrilled for him to come out on top,” Hanna said. “It’s definitely encouraging to see where he came from and hopefully fill in his footsteps. We were all rooting for him. It’s certainly good for KU golf and the whole program and for Gary and his career. It’s been a long time coming for him.”

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