(Editor’s note: I covered the Genesis Open in 2017 and was so impressed by the collegiate champ, Sahith Theegala, that I wrote a story about the Pepperdine sophomore. There was something about his quiet confidence and focus that made me think he would eventually join the pros. Jump ahead to last Friday, July 2, when The New York Times ran a long feature story about Sahith titled “Golfer’s Pro Journey Starts with a Burst Bubble.” The author noted, “Sahith Theegala is starting his PGA Tour career just as the cornavirus infiltrated pro golf’s caravan.” Theegala was a young phenom, like Tiger Woods, winning world golf championships at age 6, 8 and 10. He has played in the last two PGA tournaments and has missed the 36-hole cut in both of them, but as Bill Bruns points out, “At least he’s out there gaining experience.”)
Collegian Theegala Plays with the Pros
By SUE PASCOE
Pepperdine sophomore Sahith Theegala earned his first collegiate golf title on February 28 when he won the 54-hole Southwestern Invitational tournament in Westlake Village by one stroke. The Waves also captured team honors by upsetting sixth-ranked USC by 16 strokes.
“I didn’t play that well today [the final round] but I put myself in a good position with the first two rounds [66-66],” Theegala said on the Pepperdine website. “I was just trying to have fun. The last couple weeks have been unbelievable.”
Unbelievable is a good way for Theegala to sum up the end of February. He was low scorer in the Genesis Open Collegiate Showcase at Riveria on February 13, and four days later he was playing in his first PGA tournament.
The Showcase features top collegiate players in the country, who are paired with a pro and two amateur-playing alumni from their school. The foursomes play a best-ball competition with the winning team earning a $50,000 donation to that school’s golf program. Pepperdine won with Theegala, PGA pro Jeff Gove, Paul Porteous and Matt Stapleton.
Theegala’s 69 earned him entry into the Genesis Open, where the 19-year-old was paired with Wesley Bryan and Kelly Kraft (a second-place finisher at Pebble Beach the week before). Since college golfers don’t have a caddy, Theegala asked Jason Tuck, the assistant golf coach at Diamond Bar High (where Theegala went to school), to carry his bags.
Once on the course, Theegala didn’t let the pressure bother him. “I don’t think,” he said. “I just hit the next ball.”
At the end of 36 holes, Theegala was tied for 40th at 2-under 140 with Michelson (who has won five major championships) and J.B. Holmes (a four-time PGA Tour winner). Theegala and Michelson had identical opening rounds of 67-73.
“I don’t like to overthink the golf course,” Theegala told the News after the Genesis. “I’m not too technical. The weakest part of my game is my driver. The best part of my game is the short game.”
Michelson, a two-time winner at Riveria, always has a large gallery following him. It could be intimidating for an amateur, but it turns out Theegala had a galley, too—including the Pepperdine women’s golf team, which had made life-sized color photographs of Theegala and put them on sticks to hold high as they followed the threesome.
“That was super cool,” Theegala said. “I didn’t know they were going to do that.” Also in the gallery were college and high school friends and about 20 relatives.
“A lot of people care,” Theegala said. “There were even friends from high school and that was the coolest thing.”
Because of the weather delays on Friday, the threesome had to play 13 holes to finish the third round on Sunday morning. Theegala and Michelson both shot 71 and Holmes had a 68. The threesome stayed together for the final round.
Michelson and Holmes finished in a five-way tie for 34th place with 280. Theegala shot a 69 for 282, tying six other players for 49th, including Sergio Garcia and Sam Saunders. Those players took home $17,276, but Theegala, an amateur, had to go home empty handed, except for some valuable intangibles.
“The experience of playing with Phil is something I’m never going to forget,” Theegala said.
Michelson, in a post-tournament media interview, was asked about Theegala. “He was great. He played well and I thought it was pretty cool the way his family and friends come out and supported him.”
Theegala started his golf career at the age of three, swinging plastic golf clubs in the living room.
“Dad was watching the Masters,” said Theegala, “and I was interested.” He received real clubs at age five and began playing
on a little 9-hole course in Pomona.
“I won the Junior World Championship when I was six,” said Theegala, whose dad Muralidhar and mother Karuna immigrated from Hyderabad, India. The tournament was played on the Presidio Golf Course in San Diego. “I birdied three of the last holes. It was then my dad realized I was good,” said Theegala, who also won the World Championships at eight and 10.
“Tiger was my favorite player when I was 8, 9, 10,” said Theegala, who uses Ping clubs. “I liked Henry Stetson, too.”
Even though Theegala, now 6’3” tall, spent most of his athletic time golfing, “I love all sports. I played basketball until my freshman year of high school. I was a pretty good shooter and I’m also pretty good at sand volleyball.”
With Teegala leading the way, Diamond Bar High School won or shared the league golf title four years and captured CIF Southern Section titles in 2012 and 2013. Theegala also made the honor roll every year.
He was recruited by several colleges, but selected Pepperdine, largely because of the coaches. “He’s awesome,” Theegala said of head coach Michael Beard. “I wanted to go where we could win a national title.” The last time the Waves won the NCAA championship was in 1997. Pro golfers Jeff Gove, Jason Gore, Michael Putnam and Michael Allred are notable Pepperdine graduates, as well as golf writer Geoff Shackelford, who grew up in Pacific Palisades.
Theegala also likes the campus facilities: the players practice hitting with a view of the ocean. The team generally plays nine holes at North Ranch in Westlake Village on Tuesday and Thursday and 18 holes at Santicoy Regional Golf Course in Ventura on weekends.
“Monday and Wednesday, there are a couple of sweet courses [Sherwood, Lakeside and Bel-Air] we play,” Theegala said.
Even for a pro, having to play three rounds in two days at the Genesis could be tiring, but what about a college player, who normally mixes classes into his day? “It was kind of exhausting,” Theegala said. “But once I got on the golf course I got into my zone. I was just trying to enjoy it.”
Immediately after he finished at Riviera, Theegala played in The Prestige at PGA West in La Quinta (February 20-22), where he tied for 18th among fellow college players.
He’s carrying 16 units this semester, and had to miss classes “almost the last two weeks,” he told the News on February 24. But this is another reason why he chose Pepperdine. “Small classes mean the teachers are willing to work with you individually.”
After the NCAA golf championship in Sugar Grove, Illinois, May 26-31, Theegala will focus on the U.S. Amateur, which will be held at the Riveria August 14-20, preceded by stroke play at Bel-Air, just a few miles away off Sunset.
Both courses should feel like home to Theegala.