If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this week’s WM Phoenix Open was a home game for Sahith Theegala.
Only the 24-year-old Theegala isn’t from Scottsdale, Arizona, but rather Chino Hills, California. He played collegiately at Pepperdine, is a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan, and now lives back home with his parents in SoCal as he looks for a place of his own. He has no connection whatsoever to this tournament, other than the fact that he graciously received a sponsor exemption a couple of weeks ago.
But he arguably has one of loudest galleries, which, at “The People’s Open,” is saying something.
Theegala, a former Haskins Award winner as college golf’s player of the year in 2020 and currently in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, has enjoyed having his group of family and friends, led by his father, Murli, out at several events on this West Coast swing. This week the caravan made the road trek east to the Arizona desert, where just under a dozen people – also included are Theegala’s mom, Karuna; a few uncles; his cousin’s parents; another cousin; and his caddie’s girlfriend and her family – have followed Theegala’s hot start at TPC Scottsdale, where he leads outright at 12 under after 36 holes.
“They’re such a great bunch,” said Theegala, who also drove to Phoenix (he’s actually put about 2,000 miles on his car in the past few weeks driving to events). “They’re so positive and the fact that they drove out here just to support me and walked six hours and probably dehydrated out there and feet hurting and still cheering me on, it’s really cool to know that they’re there.”
How can Theegala decipher where the hoots and hollers are coming from? His group knows how to pronounce his name properly (it’s SAW-HITH, not SUH-HEETH).
More people will learn the correct way if he keeps this play up.
Teeing off in the final threesome off No. 10 on Thursday afternoon, Theegala stormed out of the gates with five birdies in his first seven holes, and he was 7 under with two holes to play when the round was halted for darkness. Atop the leaderboard, Theegala celebrated with a quiet night in, eating Thai food and watching basketball with his caddie, Carl Smith, who actually helped recruit Theegala, a lanky, three-time Junior Worlds champ who once swung cross-handed and frequently hit shanks on purpose while warming up, to Malibu. Smith was the Waves assistant before leaving to become a Tour caddie just prior to Theegala arriving on campus.
They’ve since reunited as Theegala turned pro in Summer 2020, during the height of the pandemic, and battled his way through mini-tours and just a handful of sponsor invites to earn enough non-member FedExCup points to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where he earned his ticket to the big leagues. He’s performed solidly in his debut season, making eight of 10 cuts and holding the 18-, 36- and 54-hole leads at the Sanderson Farms Championship before slipping to T-8. He also was in contention at midpoints of The American Express and Farmers Insurance Open before faltering late.
The next step, naturally, is winning – something Theegala did four times in college. He’s a step closer.
Theegala returned to the course early Friday morning to wrap up his opening round. He missed a 16-footer for par with his first stroke of the restart and then found the lip of a fairway bunker on the par-4 ninth, which he also bogeyed to shoot 5-under 66, one shot worse than K.H. Lee’s leading score.
“I can’t do much about that, right?” Theegala said. “And I knew if I kept putting the ball in the fairway I’m going to have scoring opportunities, so it was nice to reset for the 30 or 40 minutes that I had in between the rounds there.”
Full-field scores from WM Phoenix Open
Theegala quickly shook off the rocky resumption and started his second round with four birdies in his first five holes to retake the lead. He later finished with birdies on four of his final six to card 64.
Now, he’s on to the weekend, the entire field looking up at him – Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele are each one back, Patrick Cantlay two back – while Theegala eyes his maiden Tour win in just his 11th start as a member.
“I haven’t had time to let it set in and hopefully I don’t think too much about it because obviously what I’ve been doing has been working the first couple days,” Theegala said, “but, yeah, again, just thankful that I’m here and trying to make the most out of the opportunity.
“No expectations at all, honestly.”
Just to give his family and friends some more to cheer about.