SoCal’s Sahith Theegala has PGA fans in uproar coming into Genesis Invitational

Sahith Theegala hits his tee shot at the third hole during the final round of the Phoenix Open.
Sahith Theegala hits his tee shot at the third hole during the final round of the Phoenix Open on Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Maybe it was his underdog story of a rookie playing on a sponsor’s exemption, or the look of wide-eyed wonder on his bearded face, or the way his cool name rolls off the tongue, but the raucous galleries at the frat-house-party-like WM Phoenix Open grabbed ahold of Sahith Theegala last weekend and wouldn’t let go.

Chants of “THEE-GAL-A! THEE-GAL-A!” filled the desert course at TPC Scottsdale, where the former Diamond Bar High School and Pepperdine University star stood atop the leaderboard for most of the four-day event and seemed on the verge of his first PGA Tour win before disaster struck on the penultimate hole.

What happened in the wake of Sunday’s 17th-hole collapse, which knocked the 24-year-old Chino Hills resident into a three-way tie for third place, further endeared Theegala to those in attendance and watching on television.


Tiger Woods says it is a long haul to recover from his leg surgeries, but he will return to PGA on a part-time basis. He just doesn’t know when.

Feb. 16, 2022

Theegala walked off the 18th green and into the arms of his parents, Murli and Karuna, with whom he still lives. His father repeatedly told him, “It’s OK,” while his mother wiped tears from his eyes.

“It was unbelievable to hear the galleries chanting his name and loving him — it seemed like he became a fan favorite overnight,” said Pepperdine golf coach Michael Beard, who flew to Phoenix for the final round. “He just has a way about him. He’s super likable and doesn’t give off any arrogant vibe. He’s genuine, and it shows how he carries himself.

“He’s competitive, but he’s clapping on the first tee for his playing partners. He’s giving high-fives to the people walking by. He’s animated. He’ll miss a shot and drop his club. And the fact he got a sponsor’s invitation … you hadn’t heard of him, and now he’s playing with the top 20 players in the world, Ryder Cuppers.”

Theegala says he hopes to extend his coming-out party for another weekend when he tees off Thursday in in the opening round of the Genesis Invitational at the Riviera Country Club, the historic Pacific Palisades course where he won the Collegiate Showcase in 2017, earning an exemption into the tournament that year.

“That was one of the best memories I’ve ever had,” Theegala said last weekend. “It was incredible. I knew my family and friends would be out there. Literally 20 minutes from campus, so I had a bunch of Pepperdine people coming out too.

“I played 33 holes with Phil [Mickelson] on Sunday, and obviously that’s something I’m never going to forget as a just-turned 19-year-old in college. And Riviera is one of my favorite golf courses, so nothing but good memories there. I’m really excited about getting a spot to my hometown event.”

Sahith Theegala acknowledges the cheering crowd after his final putt at the Phoenix Open.
Sahith Theegala acknowledges the cheering crowd after his final putt at the Phoenix Open on Sunday
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

All the excitement of last weekend took a toll on Theegala, who played a practice round at Riviera on Monday but stayed home Tuesday and Wednesday to rest, turning down several media requests to recover from driving 2,000 miles or so to tour events in recent weeks.

Theegala grabbed the lead in Scottsdale with a second-round 64. Though he admitted to being “a little bit star-struck” when he teed off with PGA stars Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka on Saturday, he shot a third-round 69 for a one-stroke lead over Koepka, the defending champion.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Theegala was tied with Patrick Cantlay for the lead at 16-under with two holes to play and hit what he thought was a perfect three-wood off the tee at 17, a drivable 330-yard par four. But his ball hit a knoll 20 yards short of the green, kicked hard to the left and went into the water.

He dropped for a penalty stroke, chipped to within 14 feet but missed that putt for par, settling for a bogey.

“It’s hard to swallow because he made a great swing and hit it where he wanted to,” Beard said. “If it’s a yard right, it shoots to the middle of the green. It went left and trickled into the water. It was a pivotal hole. You go from potentially making two to making five.”


Theegala made par on 18 and settled for third place and a check for $434,600, which doubled his career earnings and gave him a new outlook entering the Genesis Invitational.

“A little bit of both, sure,” Theegala said, when asked if he was more proud of the way he hung in at Phoenix or more disappointed with the finish. “But these last couple rounds and last couple days really gave me a lot of confidence to tell me that, hey, I do belong up here.”

Beard says he believes Theegala, who won the Haskins Award as college golf’s best player as a Pepperdine senior in 2020, will benefit from the experience.

While Matthew Stafford was winning the Super Bowl on Sunday, Scottie Scheffler won his first PGA Tour title. Both are from Highland Park High in Texas.

Feb. 15, 2022

“Even though he didn’t win, he’ll take so much from it,” Beard said. “Just playing with top 10-20 guys in the world, seeing how they do their job and learning from it. One of the things he told me is that the first two days, he almost didn’t miss a shot, he hit it so good, and the last two days he didn’t. It wasn’t the same.

“Maybe he can walk away thinking, ‘I can still compete with the best in the world when I wasn’t hitting everything exactly where I wanted to.’ Just that alone could hopefully give him that extra belief and confidence that he can compete with these guys and be a player on the tour for a long time.”

Theegala’s game seems suited for Riviera, which favors more of a left-to-right player off the tee and features an abundance of mammoth Eucalyptus trees, super-fast greens … and no water.


“He likes courses where you can play out of the trees,” Beard said. “He has an insane short game. He likes to curve the ball a lot. He’s amazing at recovery shots. He has a knack for getting out of trouble and making par.”

The key for Theegala will be keeping the ball in the fairway.

“His driving is a little more streaky and gets a little crooked sometimes,” Beard said. “But if he drives it well and is in the fairway, he’s probably gonna be on the first page of the leaderboard.”