Sahith Theegala leads freed-up group of contenders at Fortinet Championship
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Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic
NAPA, Calif. – Sahith Theegala arrived at the Fortinet Championship abnormally calm.
A heavy dose of nerves accompanied him in every other appearance he’s made at the Silverado Resort. Typically, it’s tied to the tournament’s spot in the schedule, which served as the opener of the Regular Season.
With the event newly positioned as the kickoff of the reimagined FedExCup Fall schedule, it has a heightened sense of pressure for most. Just not Theegala – a fact that is faring him well.
While a majority of the field is worried about securing a TOUR card for 2024, Theegala is freed up and feeling good – his finish at 31st in the FedExCup Playoffs confirmed his status for next season. He’s not alone.
At 17-under, Theegala holds a two-shot lead over a smattering of contenders thriving off similarly relaxed feels at the Fortinet Championship.
Cam Davis, Eric Cole, Matt Kuchar and Justin Thomas all cited a renewed sense of peace as an aid to their results. Each sits in the top 5 heading into Sunday.
Clear minds lead to clean golf, apparently.
“It's been a good week, a lot of good vibes,” Theegala said after a third-round 67.
Sahith Theegala’s interview after Round 3 of the Fortinet Championship
Of course, a win is still at stake. Theegala and Cole are searching for their first on TOUR. Kuchar, Davis and Thomas are all trying to snap droughts that have gotten too long in the tooth for their liking. That should make for an entertaining finish, with the group jockeying for a victory without much to lose on a back nine that has played more than 1 under this week and features three par 5s.
Davis will play alongside Theegala. The Aussie fired a Saturday 65 with birdies on five of his final six holes to finish 15 under and edge out S.H. Kim (also 15 under) for the spot in the final pairing. Davis finished 48th in the FedExCup, carding three consecutive top 10s to make the Playoffs and ensure a spot in all the Signature Events.
“If I was fighting for position for next year still, it would be a very different mindset to what I've currently got,” said Davis, who has tinkered with his setup and grip to impressive results. He ranks fifth in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and ninth in putting.
Then there’s Thomas. Unlike Theegala and Davis, his spot in the Signature Events remains in question. At 71st in the FedExCup, Thomas must sneak into the top 60 by the end of the fall to get into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and The Genesis Invitational through The Next 10. Though a big load came off his shoulders when he received a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He still has much to earn on TOUR, but he’s playing with a renewed sense of freedom and ownership that has served him well.
“I'm putting myself in a lot better positions to have good things happen, but more than anything, mentally I truly believe that good things are going to happen, so that's at least a good start,” said Thomas.
The two-time major champion shot a third-round 65, tied with Davis and Kuchar for the day's low round. His highlight was a holed bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 15th. He played the four par 5s in 5 under on Saturday. He is 15 under and will play with S.H. Kim in the penultimate group.
Justin Thomas holes out from greenside bunker for eagle at Fortinet Championship
Two-time defending champion Max Homa lurks, too. He briefly held a lead early Saturday afternoon after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Homa played the final 11 holes in 3 over to fall to 10 under, seven shots back.
“Winning the golf tournament is starting to feel a little bit fleeting,” he said. “Should be a good event. Hopefully I can maybe make some noise.”
They are all chasing Theegala, the California kid who looks right at home. With a large contingent of friends and family following every shot, Theegala has managed his way around Silverado Resort’s North Course like he has played it hundreds of times. He hasn’t hit more than seven fairways in any round but has surrendered only two bogeys all week. He ranks first in scrambling and second in putting.
“I feel like I'm just scrambling my butt off a little bit, which feels like a good thing because I feel like if I'm in the fairway, it almost feels like a bonus,” said Theegala.
Sahith Theegala gets up-and-down for birdie at Fortinet Championship
A victory would be a bonus in his mind, too. Theegala has been insistent he doesn’t think about winning. If he’s making progress and in contention, he is happy. Eventually, he will run into a win.
Yet he couldn’t help but think about what it might mean to do it Sunday in Napa Valley.
“To get a win in the home state would mean the world,” said Theegala before acknowledging that maybe he is feeling some pressure after all.
“I’m sure I’m going to be very nervous, but just going to channel those nerves and try and have fun.”