Erik Compton had three birdies on the back nine late on Thursday afternoon for a five-under 67, leaving him one shot out of the lead after a day that featured a timely rally by Rory McIlroy and a surprising departure by Phil Mickelson.
When the day ended at Muirfield Village, Scott Stallings was atop the leaderboard with a 66 and hardly anyone noticed.
Compton has been an amazing story as long as he has played golf. He had his first heart transplant at 12, played in the Walker Cup after a solid career at Georgia, nearly died from a heart attack on his way home from the golf course in 2007, had a second transplant in May 2008 and earned his USPGA Tour card for the first time last year through the Nationwide Tour.
“It’s just a great story, obviously, and it’s a great place — for me, it’s a special place,” Compton said. “For me, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my donor. To be able to play here, regardless of whether I play good or bad, it’s just always a nice week.”
It could have been another bad week for McIlroy.
Coming off back-to-back missed cuts that cost him his No. 1 ranking and ramped up the scrutiny, McIlroy took a quadruple-bogey on his third hole of the tournament when he went from the bunker to the water, back over the pond to the drop area on a forward tee and then into another bunker. He blasted onto the green and took two putts for a seven and there were murmurs from the crowd to see him at four-over par so early.
The next 15 holes were much better and he rallied for a 71.
“It wasn’t the start I wanted to get off to, being four-over through three holes, especially after the last few weeks,” McIlroy said. “I was just like: ‘Here we go again,’ but I hung in there well and I’m proud of myself for the way I just fought back.”
Tiger Woods, playing in the group behind him, chopped up the 18th hole for a double-bogey and still managed a two-under 70.
“I didn’t do anything great and I didn’t do anything poorly,” Wood said. “I was just very consistent. And I think with the golf course being the way it’s set up, you just have to be that way ... Over the next three days, hopefully I can play as well as I did today.”
Mickelson was not anywhere near those scores and when his round ended, he was nowhere near the golf course. Mickelson walked out of the scoring hut after signing for a 79 and said he was withdrawing because of mental fatigue.
He said playing three straight weeks, followed by a trip to Europe for his wife’s 40th birthday, took too much out of him and he needed extra rest with the US Open only two weeks away. Mickelson was among four players who withdrew after a 79 or worse, though none of the others are four-time major champions who were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“I feel like it’s the responsibility of a player to see through your commitment and finish the tournament and so forth,” he said. “And I’m kind of overruling that just a touch, because I’m trying to think big picture on what’s the best way for me to get ready for the [US] Open.”
The bigger picture might have been the fans in the gallery using their cellphones for photographs of Mickelson, Masters champion Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler. Mickelson has a peculiar way of sending a message, though he danced around a question of whether distractions played a role. He only said he struggled to focus from a busy month.