PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Erik Compton describes himself as a dreamer, and that is an important trait to have for someone who has endured two heart transplants and still returned to golf, the game he loves.

Compton, 30, a former all-American at Georgia, fulfilled a huge dream last week by qualifying for his first U.S. Open. He played his initial full 18-hole practice round Monday at the seaside Pebble Beach Golf Links and said he almost gotten dizzy looking around "just because it's so surreal."

Talk about surreal. In 2008, Compton watched the U.S. Open while lying in bed at his home in Coral Gables, Fla., less than one month removed from his second heart transplant, and wondered if he'd ever play golf again.

"I pretty much had come to grips that I wasn't ever going to play golf again," he said. "I sold all my golf equipment. I didn't have any [qualifying] status anywhere.

"But in the back of your mind . . . I'm a dreamer, so I have dreamed that I could get another heart and I could come back out and play. A lot of my success off the golf course has come from my dad. Even when I was sick in the hospital, he was reading Golfweek to me and had a vision of me playing golf again."

Compton was stricken with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle, when he was "9 or 10, or maybe earlier than that," he said. His first heart transplant came at age 12 and he went on to enjoy stellar careers at the junior and collegiate levels. He competed in the U.S. Amateur and on the U.S. Walker Cup team.

But after he turned professional, the door to competition stayed closed. He did not qualify for the PGA Tour, playing on the Nationwide circuit and various mini-tours. The closest he came to earning a U.S. Open berth came in a playoff at sectional qualifying.

Then there were the constant health issues. He suffered a near-fatal heart attack in October 2007. Seven months later, he had another new heart, this time courtesy of Isaac Klosterman, a former University of Dayton volleyball player who was killed in a hit-and-run accident.

Again, it was back to golf. It's not only his passion, it helps him "forget about the issues that I do have."

"Golf has helped me to overcome mentally a lot of the scars that are there in the back of my mind," he said. "I've had a lot of traumatic things happen, and those things don't go away."

The 5-foot-9, 150-pound Compton, who takes a regimen of 20 pills twice a day, has received some exemptions into PGA Tour events. He has made four cuts this year and pocketed more than $65,000.

The most recent showing came two weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament, where he closed with an 82 and thought about withdrawing from the next day's 36-hole U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Springfield, Ohio.

But after a session at the range with a different set of irons that lasted until 9:30 p.m. that Sunday, Compton went the distance, plus three extra holes thanks to a three-man playoff for the final two available spots.

When the final putt fell for Compton, ensuring his first U.S. Open berth, he cried with joy.

"It was very emotional because it's something that I've worked for my whole life, to play in a major," he said. "I've been working very hard to get a PGA Tour card and I have not had a full tour card in my career. That's something I still want to do.

"I think I can play well enough to get a card out here. So whether that's through Q-school or whether that's this week or next week or whatever, eventually I'm going to break through. I'm only two years out of the transplant and I still am fighting my physical conditioning on the weekend. Once I get that figured out, I think that I'll become a better golfer."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.