Get to know Sahith Theegala in 10 stories
13 Min Read
Written by Nick Parker @KornFerryTour
1. Sahith Theegala is an escape artist. Seemingly everyone who has played with him or seen him play has a story, and the plot follows the same script: Theegala escapes from a near-impossible situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s from out of the woods and around trees or getting out of jail greenside; they all end the same.
Theegala saves par.
Roy Cootes, Theegala’s best friend and teammate at Pepperdine, said he’s seen some crazy escapes from his buddy, but none left him speechless as much as what he saw in a practice round in Las Vegas one day at Southern Highlands Golf Club.
“He hits his ball into a bush near the green with water on the other side of the green in an impossible spot, and he hits it to like 4 feet out of a bush,” said Cootes, who caddied for Theegala at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills when they were both sophomores. “Unbelievable shot. I absolutely freaked out. We all did.”
His caddie Carl Smith, who recruited him when he was an assistant coach at Pepperdine, can only shake his head when he thinks about Theegala’s escape on the drivable par-4 15th in the second round of last fall’s Shriners Children’s Open.
Going for the green, Theegala left it in the desert instead. He faced a sandy lie with rocks all around the ball, on a downslope, pitching to an elevated green with a back-right hole location.
“He’s got three steps of green to work with over a bunker off a downslope off of rocks and sand, and he just opens up a lob wedge and swings away and hits it to 2 feet. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smith said. “I’d have been happy if it’d just gone in the bunker, and he hits it to 2 feet.”
His longtime coach Rick Hunter’s favorite escape courtesy of a short game that he thinks has been “world-class for eight to 10 years” came at the Genesis Invitational in 2017. Paired with Phil Mickelson for the final 32 holes on Sunday after a weather delay with thousands of spectators following along, Theegala hit his tee shot on the famed par-3 sixth hole – featuring a bunker in the middle of the green – over the bunker to the back of the green. With a front hole location, he had no chance of putting it, but it didn’t matter. He still got up-and-down for par.
“He had no shot, absolutely no shot, but he pulled out his sand wedge and hit this unbelievable shot just to the left of the pin and made 3,” Hunter said.
Theegala’s Houdini escapes aren’t limited to just around the greens either. Smith has seen so many ridiculous escapes from wayward tee shots that he’s just had to learn to trust Theegala when he wants to hit a recovery shot that he thinks is too risky or difficult.
“He has this ability if he’s out of position off the tee to just shape it crazy around trees. There’s probably one shot a tournament that I’m just, ‘Alright, I’m going to let him do it, I guess,’ and I’ve never regretted it,” Smith said. “He always seems to pull it off.”
2. Most golfers can’t even say the dreaded word, but Theegala hits shanks on purpose for fun.
“Our freshman year, he would hit a shank for fun to throw people off on the range,” Cootes said with a laugh, recalling the first time he witnessed this. “I don’t know if I should say a name, but there was a very good golfer that was a senior on the complete opposite end of the range, and Sahith was like, ‘I’m just going to shank one over to this guy to make him look back,’ and I’m pretty sure he got his attention because it was kind of close.”
Was the name Jon Rahm, by chance?
“It was the name, Jon Rahm, yes,” Cootes chuckled. “That was definitely my most vivid memory of him shanking shots on the range for fun.”
Theegala’s high school coach Ty Watkins said he would routinely shank a few before matches on the range. Once, he hit ‘seven or eight’ before a California Interscholastic Federation Finals match, which the team proceeded to win.
“In high school, he was just one of those kinds of characters, and that’s what he did,” Watkins said. “He’d go over to the putting area and just shank one and a ball would go flying by my head or something. He’s just hilarious that way.”
When Watkins went to watch him at the Fortinet Championship this past fall, he learned quickly Theegala’s still the same guy. He’s still not even sure if Theegala saw him first or not but before he could say hello, he watched a ball go whizzing from the other side of the range towards the yard of some houses near the chipping green.
“This is a PGA TOUR event, the first time I see him with his card, and he’s chipping at the putting green, and he shanks one 30 yards, dead shank into the houses on his first chip,” Watkins recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding me?’ And his caddie’s cracking up. He hasn’t changed. He’s the same kid he was in high school, and I think that’s a great lesson of, ‘Don’t change who you are.’”
3. Theegala rarely, if ever, hits a straight shot, and that started when he was just 7 as Rick Hunter tells it. Hunter said the precocious little 7-year-old Theegala, who had just won the Junior World Golf Championships as a 6-year-old, came back frustrated after a recent tournament because there was a tree on a par-3 that he couldn’t hit it over, so he needed Hunter to help him with the solution he came up with – a solution he’s still using today.
“He says, ‘I can’t get over it, so can you show me how to hit it around it?’” Hunter recalled. “I said, ‘Oh boy, I’m going to teach him some shot-making at age 7! So, we learned then how to fade and draw a ball. And he has a great imagination. He plays very few straight shots. That’s why some shots sort of look weird and he may not pull them off because he’s working the ball all the time.”
Watkins knew that Theegala didn’t need to hit driver off the dogleg right at their home golf course, but he could only laugh when Theegala would hit it anyways. He had little fear blasting it through the fairway into the woods because he liked shaping it around trees anyways.
“It wasn’t uncommon for him to drive it through the fairway intentionally on the first hole, so his second shot could be around a tree just because that’s him and that’s what he practiced, and he had that shot in his bag,” Watkins said with a laugh. “He could always get away with stuff like that because he knew how to shape it out of trouble.”
Even these days, Theegala’s pre-round warm-up routine catches his caddie off guard – featuring shots that no other TOUR pro practices on the range before a round. Smith is still not sure if he does it to keep his body guessing, just for fun or a challenge or for a specific reason, but it’s a much more fun range session to watch than the robotic mix of lasers that he sees from the pros next to him.
“He’ll definitely just hit, like, shots with a ton of curve in his warm-up,” Smith said. “He’ll hit like three or four straight 5-irons that cut 30 yards then hit a driver with a high hook. All kinds of random stuff like that. I still don’t know why he does it, but he just loves curving the ball.”
4. Theegala’s unique swing is completely built on feel and athleticism, and his signature head move on the downswing isn’t completely on purpose. Theegala has scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, which has always forced him to make a different motion than his peers.
“His scoliosis creates the problem of so much side bend on the downswing, and it really comes to light with the driver, not so much with the irons,” Hunter said.
His spine still bends to the right, and Theegala still sees a chiropractor regularly, who specializes in scoliosis, for treatment. It’s manageable, though. Hunter and Theegala have realized that he offsets the side bend best with the driver when he swings with a slower tempo, which the two have been working regularly on.
5. Everyone around Theegala has their moment when they knew he was special, and the natural talent was unlike anything they’d seen before. For Hunter, it was when he came to him as a 6-year-old for his first lesson. Hunter took him to the putting green, and he’d flick his wrist at every putt, and they all went in. They proceeded to chipping, and Theegala stabbed at those, but they all either went in or ended up right beside the cup. Hunter knew if he could do that with no form, he was going to be special when he gained it.
“He knew it, I knew it and his parents knew from a very young age that he was born to be a TOUR player,” Hunter said.
For his dad, Murli, it came when his boy won the Junior Worlds at age 6 playing cross-handed – a tidbit he hadn’t even noticed previously until a spectator mentioned it to him. But for Murli, ensuring he reached his potential was easy because Sahith always wanted it for himself and always loved playing from an early age.
“He fell in love with it immediately. I don’t know what excited him, but he was so excited,” Murli recalled. “He’d keep practicing until the night and it gets dark, and I remember a few times him crying, ‘I don’t want to go home,’ but I said, ‘It’s dark, buddy, we’ve gotta go home.’”
6. If Theegala isn’t on the golf course, there’s a decent chance he’s competing in another game – chess. Smith remembers rooming with him for the first time at this year’s Korn Ferry Tour Finals, and he was curious regarding which show Theegala was watching so intently on his computer. He was playing online chess.
“He just gets online and plays people live and he’ll practice against the computers too,” Smith said. “I was asking him about the accuracy of the show “The Queen’s Gambit,” and he knew all the moves they were doing on the show.”
Theegala got into chess as a senior at Pepperdine, when he broke his wrist and couldn’t play golf for six months, so his teammate Derek Hitchner encouraged him to start competing against him in chess.
“Derek got him into it and used to beat him, but over the last couple of years Sahith’s gotten really good as well, and now they kind of go back and forth,” Cootes said.
7. Everyone raves about Theegala’s short game and iron play, but his demeanor on the course is an equal weapon, according to those close to him. Hunter points to Theegala’s first TOUR start at the Genesis Invitational in 2017, when he opened with a 4-under 67 and was inside the top-10 after the opening round.
“It’s his very first pro tournament and he’s on the leaderboard,” Hunter remembered, “and I said after, ‘How did you feel?’ And he looked at me strange and said, ‘What do you mean? I felt OK.’ I was looking to see if he had any nerves or apprehension. And he didn’t.”
Most things are low-key with Theegala. A couple weeks ago, Theegala played a casual round at Hillcrest Country Club with longtime friend Danny Oh, a buddy from their junior golf days. Theegala shot 63 and left with the course record.
“It was just the most casual ball-striking clinic,” Oh said. “We finished the round, and he had no clue he shot the course record. He’s like, ‘Oh, cool.’ He’s just always super casual.”
8. In a 27-year teaching and coaching career, Watkins says Theegala is easily one of the most humble kids he has ever coached or taught. His friends say there’s zero chance that’s changing now that he’s become a PGA TOUR member, and it won’t in the future if he becomes a superstar like they all think he will.
“He’s just the nicest guy. He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Cootes said. “He just loves to be around us and have a good time, and he’s super supportive. He wants us to be just as successful as he is.”
Added Oh: “He’s truly one of the most humble, down-to-earth guys you’d ever meet. You’ll never meet anyone who doesn’t like him. Even if someone’s mean to him, he’d just be kind back to you.”
His caddie, who had never caddied for a rookie until now, has appreciated the youthful exuberance and appreciation that Theegala has found on TOUR.
“He’s just like, ‘Carl, you have to see my courtesy car this week! We got an Escalade, and this thing is so sick!’ Or I’ll be like, ‘Dude, nice shoes,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, they were just sitting in my locker. A fresh pair of shoes was just in my locker. How cool is that?’ At Sony (Open), we’d had two months off, and he did to say to me, ‘Yeah, I had another one of those moments of like, ‘Wow, I’m on the PGA TOUR!’ It’s just so refreshing, and I hope he never loses that.”
9. Inside the ropes, if Theegala is chatting away with his caddie, it’s likely not about golf but instead his beloved Los Angeles Lakers. Or his fantasy football teams.
“We talk about basketball all the time because I follow basketball and the Lakers a lot,” Smith said. “Last week, though, at Sony he was really excited about Klay Thompson coming back to the Warriors with Steph (Curry) and Klay back together.”
Theegala and Watkins found that bond early in high school, too, over their shared love of not only the Lakers but Theegala’s favorite Laker – Kobe Bryant.
“I was a basketball coach, that was my passion, so he and I hit it off immediately because we’re both huge Kobe fans and huge Lakers fan,” Watkins said.
10. When Smith took over Theegala’s bag last fall, the thing that impressed him most about his game was the same that kept him coming back to recruit him for Pepperdine when he was an assistant: the ability to avoid bad rounds even when he didn’t have his best stuff.
“If his swing feels off, he just kind of knows, ‘I can salvage something today.’ I’ve seen him turn a lot of rounds that should have been 73s or 74s into 1- or 2-under,” Smith said.
It’s what separates good from great, and Cootes has seen it over and over from his buddy during their days at Pepperdine, where Theegala swept all three major college Player of the Year awards as a senior – Jack Nicklaus Award, Fred Haskins Award and Ben Hogan Award.
“His ability to score is just such a unique quality,” Cootes said. “He can hit it all over the map, and he can shoot the exact same score as if he was striping it. His ability to score when he’s not at his best is incredible, and it’s because his short game is one of the best I’ve ever seen. That’s what keeps him in it so much.”