- After a close call at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the 24-year-old California native made his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week.
All eyes were on Sahith Theegala this past week as the Indian American golfer from California made his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida. “The rare nonwhite” player on the tour, The New York Times reported that Theegala “had hoped for better than a one-over-par 73 in his debut in the opening round.”
While the disappointment was visible on his face “as he exited the final green,” the Times report noted that “after a few steps,” the 24-year-old “broke into a smile as he graciously approached two volunteers who had accompanied him as scorekeepers for the previous 18 holes in stiflingly hot conditions.” On the first day, Theegala had three birdies and four bogeys. He has now climbed to 42nd in the season-long FedEx Cup rankings.
It is these qualities that make Theegala more and more endearing. The Times calls him a “rarity on the PGA Tour.” While he’s making a name for himself in the PGA circuit, he is humble and unpretentious, has no airs of the newfound attention, still lives with his Indian immigrant parents and drives a regular old car. He told The New York Times that he finds the newfound attention he is receiving enjoyable, albeit amusing. “I’m an introvert by nature,” he said. In fact, until he flew to Florida last week for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he spent the previous few weeks driving his 2015 Volkswagen Passat 2,000 miles up and down California and then to Arizona to play in five tour events.
Last month, Theegala, who already has a decent fan following, won over many more and made him a rising young star on the PGA Tour, not just because of his performance at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but the unexpected end and his reaction. In the Phoenix event, he was tied for the lead in the final round with two holes remaining before a bad bounce on a sterling tee shot cost him dearly and dropped him into a tie for third. It’ll be an understatement to say that he wasn’t disappointed. A video posted on Twitter shortly after the event that showed the 6-foot-3 Theegala crying on his mother Karuna’s shoulders earned him more admirers.
He earned his 2022 PGA Tour playing rights, following two top-six finishes in the final events of the Korn Ferry Tour. The young golfer made his professional debut in June 2020 at the Outlaw Tour’s Lone Tree Classic, where he tied for third place, after which he finished T-14 at the 2020 Safeway Open. His first Korn Ferry Tour event was in 2021 where he finished T-19, followed by a T-9 finish at the MGM Resorts Championship at Paiute, a tournament on the Korn Ferry Tour. He played a few PGA Tour events as well, in the last two years, mainly on sponsors’ exemptions.
Theegala has scoliosis, the New York Times said, adding that it causes “a pretty big bend to the right,” and is the cause of his “his somewhat unorthodox swing.” The condition doesn’t cause him any pain, the Times noted but restricts certain movements.
Before entering the pro circuit, Theegala was a star player during his five years at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where he was named Player of the Year. He was ranked among the Top 20 in the American Junior Golf Association or AJGA ranking.
In an in-depth profile, the New York Times revealed that Theegala grew up in a typical Indian American family that emphasized academics and was enthralled by American sports,” particularly, basketball. He grew up becoming a lifelong Lakers fan. There were frequent trips to India as well, “at least once every two years,” to visit paternal and maternal grandparents.
According to the New York Times report, Theegala’s maternal grandmother came to the U.S. to help his mother, her daughter, Karuna, who was suffering from thyroid cancer. Since then The New York Times says Theegala’s grandmother, Vijaya Laxmi, has spent six months in California and six months back in India. “I’m definitely very proud of my background and my Indian heritage,” Theegala said. “But when I’m around my friends and other golfers, it’s not something that I think about.”
Along with academics and spending time with family and friends, and his love for basketball and the Lakers, Theegala always found time for golf, which has been a pivotal part of his life. He graduated from Diamond Bar High School in 2015, where he was on the All-Sierra League first team all four years. He was the Sierra League’s Athlete of the Year as a senior and the League MVP as a junior. In 2019, Theegala, then a student at Pepperdine, received the Fred Haskins Award, an honor recognizing the nation’s top college player. He is the first player from the university to get this coveted award.
It’s no wonder that Theegala’s golf record made him a sought-after asset by a lot of schools, but Golf Digest reported that he committed to Pepperdine, because “playing at a mid-major, albeit in glamorous Malibu, and staying close to home was more Theegala’s speed.”
On the college website, Theegala wrote that he chose to attend Pepperdine because of “the amazing coaches, great location, awesome campus, close to home, the school’s small feel, the good academics and the great golf facilities.”
During his five years at the university, Golfweek says “Theegala took the reins of the Pepperdine program and showed the nation his talent.” Golfweek says, Theegala, a sports administration major, developed a reputation “for intentionally hitting high-handicap shots before tournaments – shanks, tops, chunks, slices, hooks, you name it – all in an effort to throw off his opponents.”
He helped the school reach its first-ever number one regular-season ranking in program history during the 2019-2020 season. The season was cut short because of the pandemic, but it ended the season ranked number one in the Bushnell/Golfweek coaches poll and by Golfstat.
In his senior year at Pepperdine, Theegala was the top-ranked player in the nation by both Golfstat and Golfweek/Sagarin when the season ended. He was named to All-American first teams by both the GCAA/PING and Golfweek magazine. According to a university press release, Theegala holds Pepperdine’s career records for scoring average (70.61) and below-par rounds (74).
Theegala’s favorite thing about golf, according to information on the Pepperdine website is that even though the sport may not necessarily require the most physical ability, it needs “mental toughness,” to play it “at a high level,” and “requires your attention all the time.”