'Chess, not checkers' mindset for Sahith Theegala
September 28, 2022
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
PGA TOUR – The CUT
Sahith Theegala's quest for his first PGA TOUR win
JACKSON, Miss. – Sahith Theegala had qualified for his first Open Championship appearance, The 150th Open at St. Andrews, as a PGA TOUR rookie.
He earned a spot at the Home of Golf as an alternate via the Official World Golf Ranking (No. 62 at the time), a remarkable rise considering he was a year removed from zero status on either the PGA TOUR or Korn Ferry Tour.
St. Andrews is largely defined by its robust bunkering; a hole can be endlessly strategized based on wind direction, firmness, club selection and other factors.
Theegala is a chess enthusiast; he freely shares his chess.com username (it’s srtheegala) and gladly accepts challenges.
So when he and caddie Carl Smith mapped out their strategy for St. Andrews, the comparison was inevitable.
“I’ve joked all year with Carl, ‘It’s chess, not checkers,’” Theegala laughed in advance of this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship. “We were out at St. Andrews plotting the bunkers, ‘It’s chess, not checkers, Carl.’”
Theegala has long applied the “chess, not checkers” mindset in his rise through the golf ranks. After suffering a wrist injury as a senior at Pepperdine in fall 2018, he returned for a fifth year. The following season, without an opportunity to compete at Q-School due to the COVID-19 pandemic-induced combined season, he went about earning enough non-member FedExCup Points to qualify for the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Finals, in which he earned his first TOUR card.
Theegala qualified for last month’s TOUR Championship as a first-year PGA TOUR member, his season kick-started by a T8 at the Sanderson Farms Championship, where he led through 54 holes at the Country Club of Jackson. He cooled down in a final-round 71 to finish three back of winner Sam Burns, but the golf world was put on notice.
Playing out of the Korn Ferry Tour graduate category, Theegala needed that top-10 in Mississippi just to earn a spot in the following week’s Shriners Children’s Open. Now by virtue of his top-30 finish on the 2022 FedExCup, he’s fully exempt for the next two seasons on TOUR.
Theegala returns to the Country Club of Jackson as a second-year TOUR member and with the second-best odds to win, behind only Burns. He recalls looking at his tournament odds early last season and seeing, “I was near last out of every field.” Now the public expects him to break through any week.
Rather than shying away from the expectations, he’s relishing them.
“Max Homa just talked about it at the Fortinet (Championship), being the odds-on favorite there … in previous years, he said he would use that as extra pressure. Now he’s taking it head-on and being like, ‘Dang, that’s cool that I’m the favorite of the tournament. Let’s go get this thing done,’” Theegala said. “That’s pretty cool to see. It’s cool to know (my odds) are up there.
“Golf is such a crazy game; it’s just a hard game. There are very few times in golf where you’re truly happy. Trying to strive toward accomplishing stuff that maybe personally I didn’t think was possible a few years ago, now I do think is possible. The constant drive to get better; I do feel a little bit of that is almost an intangible, inherent love for the game … There’s something over getting the next hurdle that’s just so satisfying.”
In his first year as a TOUR member, Theegala was close. After his near-miss at the Sanderson Farms Championship, he played his way into another 54-hole lead at the WM Phoenix Open, long known as one of the TOUR’s most stadium-like settings.
Looking back, he describes it as “playing in front of 10 million people.” With several family and friends in attendance, he attempted to drive the green on the short par-4 17th but pulled it slightly left, the ball finding a greenside pond. He made bogey, followed by a closing par to finish one back of a Scottie Scheffler-Patrick Cantlay playoff.
He was devastated but reflects on the experience as a season highlight nonetheless.
“It was crazy how many people were there,” Theegala said. “That’s going to be a memory that I’m never going to forget. Still hurts. It’s going to hurt. People have said, ‘Oh, if you ever win …
“No. It’s still going to hurt, no matter what. But it was such a special week. Really kept me going for the rest of the year.”
He finished fifth at the Memorial presented by Workday and was runner-up at the Travelers Championship, making double bogey on the 72nd hole at TPC River Highlands to finish two back of Xander Schauffele.
But the lanky, oft-smiling California native has kept fighting. He rebounded from an opening 74 at the following week’s John Deere Classic to finish T16, and he made the cut at The Open en route to a T34. He added two more top-15s to close his first TOUR season, and he arrives in Mississippi fresh off a T6 at the 2022-23 season-opening Fortinet Championship.
Theegala didn’t watch much of last week’s Presidents Cup, aside from a bit of Sunday Singles. He understands the noise that he was a popular candidate for a captain’s pick, but he doesn’t believe he earned a spot on the team. That sentiment – believing he didn’t earn his spot – fuels him.
He’ll have more chances to represent the U.S. Team. He’ll take the long view.
“The energy was incredible,” Theegala said of the Presidents Cup. “I love how the guys are so into it. I’ve never played on any (U.S.) team .. I didn’t play on a junior golf (national) team or the Walker Cup, so I have a little chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t good enough to make those, so I might as well try to make one in the future.
“I love to use anything as fuel to the fire, so I think the reason I didn’t watch the first couple days, using it as more fuel. I don’t think I earned my way onto the team at all, and I wasn’t close on points or anything like that, but it’s definitely something I’ll use as motivation moving forward.”
Chess, not checkers.