ORLANDO, Fla. — Sahith Theegala, whose humble public golf course roots, unpretentious mien and near victory at last month’s Waste Management Phoenix Open have made him a rising young star on the PGA Tour, ended his round on Thursday with a dispiriting three-putt bogey.
Theegala, an Indian American from California and the rare nonwhite player on the tour, had hoped for better than a one-over par 73 in his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The disappointment was plain on his face as he exited the final green. But after a few steps, Theegala, 24, broke into a smile as he graciously approached two volunteers who had accompanied him as scorekeepers for the previous 18 holes in stiflingly hot conditions.
“Thank you for your help and for coming along today,” he said as he shook hands with them.
The gesture was an apt close to the scene on the first tee hours earlier, when Theegala politely clapped as his playing partners were introduced to fans before their opening shots. It is uncommon, if not unheard-of, for professional golfers to applaud their competitors before a round, especially at the game’s elite level.
But part of the winsome, budding Theegala phenomenon enveloping the PGA Tour this season is tied to his authenticity. He still lives at home with his parents, who emigrated from India in their 20s. Until he flew to Florida this week, he spent the previous few weeks driving his 2015 Volkswagen Passat 2,000 miles up and down California and then to Arizona to play in five tour events and never missed the cut in any tournament. In the Phoenix event, he was tied for the lead in the final round with two holes remaining before a bad bounce on a sterling tee shot cost him dearly and dropped him into a tie for third.
If that gutsy performance for a tour rookie had not already won over many golf fans, a video posted on Twitter shortly after the event that showed Theegala crying on his mother Karuna’s shoulders earned him more admirers.
The 6-foot-3 Theegala also has scoliosis, which causes what he called, “a pretty big bend to the right.” That would explain his somewhat unorthodox swing. The condition does not cause Theegala pain. “I just can’t move in certain ways,” he said.
As a child learning golf on a dusty substandard municipal course near his home in Southern California, Theegala adapted his putting stroke by tilting his head to the right so he could see the appropriate line from the ball to hole. The profile of his distinctive stance on a putting green still stands out from 100 yards away.
It explains why Theegala, a former junior champion and the winner of three college golfer of the year awards at Pepperdine, had a decent-sized gallery following him during Thursday’s first round. Theegala had an eventful day with three birdies and four bogeys as fans shouted his first name as encouragement, even if they often did not pronounce it correctly.
It is “SAW-hith” — the second syllable rhymes with “pith.” Theegala understands the confusion. Besides, it has its advantages. He can always tell where his close friends and family members are in tournament crowds because they shout his name correctly.
In a short amount of time on the tour, he has climbed to 42nd in the season-long FedEx Cup rankings. He is long off the tee — he regularly out-drove his playing partners Russell Henley and Troy Merritt on Thursday — and his short game has a mix of finesse and ingenuity defined with one word: touch.
Every golfer, longs to have touch.
For his part, Theegala finds the newfound attention he is receiving enjoyable, albeit amusing.
“I’m an introvert by nature,” he said with a smile as he walked from the practice range after Thursday’s round.
That trait is not paradoxical to Theegala, who performs before thousands standing nearby and many more watching on television.
“You hear about the best performers in the world — singers and dancers — who are really big introverts,” he said. “But it’s different when you get on the stage. When I’m in the act of playing golf, I don’t even think about the people watching.”
Theegala is aware, however, that as an Indian American he is viewed differently in a sport that has never made it easy for nonwhite players to ascend to the highest professional level.
“I’m definitely proud of my Indian heritage and I hope I’m inspiring other Indian Americans and people in India to know that they can compete in sports,” he said. “It’s obviously not the main purpose of being out there but it’s an ancillary effect of what we’re doing and I’m all for it.
“I do believe the landscape is changing.”
Theegala smiled. His three-putt on the final hole already seemed like a distant memory. For such a vexing game, he is routinely sedate on the golf course.
“Yeah, obviously, it helps that I’ve been playing the best golf of my life in the last six or seven months,” he said with a laugh. “That always helps, right? I don’t want to be too hard on myself.”