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Inspirational Golfers Draw Attention to Tournament's Mission

Some of the world's top golfers are in Florida this week for the Professional Golfers' Association of America Tour's last official money tournament of the year. Sponsored by the Children's Miracle Network, the event also raises money for the network's mission - funding 170 children's hospitals around the United States and saving and improving the lives of children. Dave Maier profiles two golfers who personify that mission.

At first glance, playing several days of grueling, high-level competitive golf may seem like an unusual method of rehabilitation for the recipient of a heart transplant. But for 28-year-old Erik Compton, it's becoming a habit... or at least a trademark. This week, Compton is among 128 golfers teeing up at the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic outside Orlando, Florida.

It's not often that a golfer's life experience so closely reflects the mission of a tournament sponsor. But in this case, Compton knows what sick kids can accomplish when they receive the right care at the right time.

"Obviously, it's a very fitting event," he observes, "considering everything that I've been through, I kind of know what kids are going through because I've been there."

Where Compton had been was on an operating table, where he received not one but two life-saving heart transplants. The first came in 1992 at age 12, after he was diagnosed with heart disease. Then - following a major heart attack 14 months ago - Compton received his second transplant in May and was out playing competitive golf again by October.

In between the transplants, Compton was a national junior golf champion and a two-time all-American at the University of Georgia. Although he played a number of other sports, Compton says golf seemed the most natural fit for his competitive nature.

"Golf was an individual sport," he explains, adding that a lot of the kids his age were stronger than he was. "And being able to shoot low scores with the health condition I had, it was a way for me to prove that I was stronger than some of the other kids."

Playing Without Seeing the Course

Also on hand this week is 16-year-old blind golfer Matt Cooper, who has lived with nearly total vision loss since he had most of a brain tumor surgically removed at age 3.

Cooper took up golf three years ago and now plays accompanied by a coach, who talks the young golfer through his round, lines up his shots and describes the terrain he's about to play through. Cooper says people might be surprised to learn that there are certain psychological advantages to being a sightless golfer - like when his coach doesn't tell him about everything that lies ahead.

"I don't need to know about the water hazard because I don't plan on being there!" he says with a chuckle. "It's not really worth my time to think about it. I may as well just think about where I need [the ball] to go."

Inspirational Players Draw Attention, Respect

Cooper is attending the event as a spokesman for the Children's Miracle Network; Erik Compton is playing here as a professional.

"The spirit that Erik embodies, we feel, really represents what we're looking for to shed light on what Children's Miracle Network hospitals are all about," says tournament Chairman Kevin Weickel.

He says Compton's inspirational story is what convinced event organizers to invite him to compete.

"He's representative of the kids who are fighting for their lives and an opportunity to grow up and do something," Weickel says. "Erik's 'something' happens to be that he's a pretty darn good golfer, but who knows what's out there in those hospitals?

"It may be the next president, could be the next CEO, or it could be that next kid who's going to grow up and maybe find the cure for some heart disease."

... or perhaps be a future winner of the Children's Miracle Network Classic.