NAPA, Calif. – To Sahith Theegala, fairways are a bonus. An ancillary ingredient to his recipe of golf. If he finds one, great. If he doesn’t, oh well. He can make do without.
“He used to tell me, ‘I know I’m going to hit six balls in the crap, so when it happens, don’t get too upset,’” recalls Michael Beard, Theegala’s college coach at Pepperdine.
It’s not that Theegala doesn’t try to play from the fairway. It’s just not essential. He has sprayed it off the tee from the moment he picked up a club, and he’s under no assumption it will stop anytime soon. It’s a feature, not a bug. One he is comfortable embracing.
It’s fitting that his maiden victory on TOUR embodied Theegala’s ethos. It wasn’t an out-of-body week with the driver, that uncharacteristically found every fairway and wound up with him in the winner’s circle. No, this was the epitome of Theegala Golf – a wildly thrilling, sometimes off-the-rails display of shot-making. A creative and unrelenting short game. And a putter that was bound to get hot on the Poa annua greens he grew up playing in Chino Hills, six hours down the California coast.
“It feels like such a team win. It doesn’t feel like a win just for myself, it’s for everyone that’s supporting me and kind of got me where I am today, ” said Theegala, who shot a final-round 68 in front of over 40 family and friends to win the Fortinet Championship. He finished 21 under, two shots clear of S.H. Kim. Theegala hit just 47% of his fairways, never more than seven in a round.
Theegala stood in the left rough off the 14th fairway. It was the second straight drive he pulled left to a dogleg left par 4. Not the place to miss. His lead is four shots, but any slip-up could be costly with two par 5s still ahead for his closest pursuers. With overhanging tree limbs in his way, Theegala’s mind began to race. Not of stress, of the possibilities.
These moments feel like a game to Theegala. He loves to play chess, analyzing many moves ahead and the different machinations that one move could trigger. He starts to do the same, assessing his next shot.
“Does a chippy 50-degree ever get that high?” Theegala asks, worried about the tree branches protruding between him and the hole.
“No, no chance,” his caddie Carl Smith responds.
Theegala settles on a 110-yard shot. The green sits well above where Theegala is standing, 122 yards away, and is located in the back right corner of the green. The ball is going to jump, he says. His lie in some straggly grass reminds him of Bermuda grass.
“Commit,” Smith says as he walks away.
This is where Theegala is at his best. The ball comes out low enough to slide under the branches but with enough arc to catch the front edge of the green with some spin. The ball trundles forward and settles pin-high, 20 feet away. He’s escaped yet another tenuous tee ball. He has his eye on more – a dagger.
Theegala scans the birdie putt. He’s gained more than eight shots on the field in putting. His speed has been exquisite all week. He sets a target and takes his putter back. Moments later, the crowd erupts.
The lead is now five.
There’s something about being backed into a corner. His drives routinely do this. It’s there that Theegala’s creative mind can run loose – be it from the trees, rough, sand or pine straw.
“He has that intangible. I don’t want to say magic, but it’s like, gosh, how did he do that?” said Beard, admitting there’s some Jordan Spieth to his game. “It always seems like there’s something special that happens.”
As with magic, there’s always something hidden that explains the trick. Theegala’s resides in his mind. He has the creativity to think of a shot and the gusto to pull it off. A lousy drive doesn’t get him down. It presents a chance to pull off something incredible. And more than likely, he’s missed in a spot he can recover from.
“It looks like he’s hitting it off the golf course, but 90% of the time he’s hitting it in spots where he can hit another shot to the green,” Beard said. “It may look way right, but I’ll bet right is way better than left on that hole.”
Theegala thinks in shapes. He grew up imagining trees were right in front of him on the driving range, forcing himself to hit draws and fades. In his mind, his swing was never good enough to rely on a straight shot. It was boring, too. His dispersion has tightened over the years, but he hasn’t wavered from his style. On the par-5 12th, Theegala roasted a low drive that never got 50 feet above the ground to stay below the wind. He made birdie. When he needed to hit a good drive on the 16th hole, he called on his swooping cut, the shot he’s relied on since childhood. He hit the fairway, stuck his approach to 7 feet, and drained the putt.
He missed more than half his fairways this week but hit 75% of the greens.
Theegala Golf at its finest.
Theegala’s genuine, easy-going nature is not a facade. It’s what those close to him see daily. But you don’t become a top-tier professional athlete without some demons, self-created or not, that motivate you.
That story starts with the 2022 WM Phoenix Open. Then a rookie on TOUR, Theegala stood on the 17th hole of the final round tied for the lead. On one of the most famous driveable par 4s on TOUR, Theegala ripped a drive that took a wicked kick and bounded into the water. His hopes of a win were dashed.
“You’ll get your day soon,” his dad, Murali, said as an emotional Theegala melted in the arms of his parents outside of the scoring area.
Other rookies had more hype coming from the Korn Ferry Tour, but Theegala had just gone toe-to-toe with Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele and finished T3. He would add two more top 5s later in the year, including a runner-up at the Travelers Championship, and advance to the TOUR Championship. He was no longer an afterthought. He was a budding star.
It’s a result Theegala carries closely. As he stood on the par-5 fifth hole of Silverado Resort’s North Course with his ball in the greenside bunker, Theegala thought back to the fifth hole of his final round at TPC Scottsdale. He led then, too, and he remembers thinking about the tough holes still left to play and protecting his lead. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
“I just remember thinking today, it’s like I want way more than that. I want to just keep playing how I’ve been playing the whole week and see how far ahead I can get,” he said. He spun his bunker shot to tap-in range, his third birdie in his first five holes.
Theegala is insistent that he doesn’t think about winning. His goals entering a week are to make progress and play his way to contention. But it finally crept into his mind after his tee shot settled on the par-3 17th green. He looked up, saw he had a four-shot lead, and let himself take it in. There would be no water ball that derailed him like the WM Phoenix Open He knew he was going to win. A bogey on the 18th was no matter. He tapped in for a six and savored the moment. He was a winner at last and did it in his home state with dozens of family and friends watching.
His parents were there to greet him. They are staples on TOUR, traveling to many of Theegala’s starts. It was his dad Murali who spurred him to pursue the sport. And it was hard for Theegala not to get emotional thinking about it.
His dreams growing up were only to get on TOUR. He didn’t think much past that. He did it his way, with his swing, at his pace. Now he’s a winner.
Time to dream bigger.
“I think I’m going to have to do a little reevaluation,” he said.