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09/24/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 09/24/2021 17:31

Sahith Theegala's special feel for the game helps him earn first PGA TOUR card

Murly Theegala had a feeling his boy, Sahith, might be special when he was just six years old. At the Junior Worlds in his first tournament, he won his age group and a spectator pointed out that he had done it while hitting cross-handed - a feat Murly had never noticed. But that wasn't the clue for Murly that something was different about his boy.

Instead, it came when they tried to correct it. Shortly after winning Junior Worlds, he took him to the range to get him out of it and figured the change would take weeks or even months to break the cross-handed action his boy had built over the previous three years.

"After five balls, he said, 'OK it feels pretty good.' It was amazing because he had played for three years left-hand low and switched it almost instantly," Murly said. "That was an amazing transformation. I said, 'My god this boy has a knack for this game.'"

When Sahith was a toddler, Murly, who moved to the United States in 1987 from India for graduate school, didn't care what sport was on the TV just as long as it was on. He loved watching sports and basketball and golf in particular were his favorites. Sahith, his oldest boy, would sit with his dad when he was just a toddler just as captivated as his old man was.

"He was 1 or 2 and sitting with me, watching Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and he just kept watching, watching and watching," Murly said.

When he was three, Murly asked him if he wanted to go hit balls himself? Of course, he did. So Murly borrowed a U.S. Kids driver and got Sahith a small bucket of 25 balls. He made good contact on 20 of them - a feat Murly was amazed by because when he'd tried to play golf for the first time with his buddies before Sahith was born, he rarely made contact the first couple tries.

"I said, 'Man, he's got something,'" Murly recalled. "He was never afraid. He'd just try to rip it as hard as he can. Then I took him to the putting and chipping green, and he fell in love with it. He'd keep practicing putting and chipping until it went dark and then he'd cry when it'd get dark."

You still see that fearlessness and short game imagination throughout Sahith's game today. His swing's unique, he hits crazy recovery, gets up and down from the craziest places, and loves shaping the ball both ways. It's kind of like a younger version of Bubba Watson's game. At the 2016 U.S. Amateur, Sahith still laughs at the fact that he purposefully hit it down a different fairway on almost half the holes at Oakland Hills.

It's such a free-wheeling, creative game based off feel that a lot of people think he's never had a coach. He actually has. He's been working with the same instructor since he was eight, but the instructor learned quickly not to focus on positions or mechanics. Only setup, feels, visualizations and trajectories. It's just all become more refined with age…well, everything except his driver. Unfortunately, there's no reigning in that youthful fearlessness that he honed on the ranges of Chino Hills, California as a kid.

"I get a little wild off the tee. That's still my bugaboo," Sahith said. "I've always had this attitude of I'm going to go hit it and find it and then try to hit a great shot from there and don't let a bad shot bug me because you can do something special with the next one. And because of that I've always hit some pretty cool recovery shots. I was absolutely forced to have a good short game or else I'd shoot in the 80s every time. The reason I feel like I've made so much progress over the last couple of years is I was able to dial in my swing a little bit and hit the ball better and that's freed up my short game a bit."

Although he's been able to dial the swing in a little bit in recent years by creating a more consistent process and method, he also knows his incredible feel is the reason he was so good as a kid. He didn't think about it. He just felt shots and hit them. Whenever his game gets out of line these days, he always goes back to that.

"Obviously we're sticking to our method every shot, feeling it doesn't mean not going through your process, but yeah, there's always time where I'm like, 'Yeah, go play like a kid,' because it's so easy to overanalyze golf," Sahith said.

The Lean Times

As easy as this journey to the top of the sport has seemed for Sahith, he hasn't always made the game look like he was playing on easy mode.

Despite Murly's precociousness as a youth, which included Junior Worlds titles at age six, eight and 10, it all seemed to evaporate when he hit a six-inch growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore year of high school that threw his game all out of whack.

"When he grew that six inches, he was not even breaking 80. The golf game just went so south," Murly said. "But I knew he had those fine instincts and intangibles, and I knew he'd be successful if he stayed with it, so my goal was to just keep his confidence up. I started just saying enjoy your round because when you enjoy it, the round turns out amazing."

He did stay with it, fighting through the growth spurts to get his game back and earn a scholarship to Pepperdine. It was there as a freshman where the wrist injuries first started to surface with tendinitis in his wrist. It got better for a year or so but then midway through his junior year he developed a stress fracture in his wrist. He sat a month but tried to come back too early and played through it as it worsened during the Spring and Summer because he didn't want to let his team down.

"It was a stupid decision looking back at it. Took a cortisone shot but it still hurt like crazy, but I played all through summer. By the time I got to the US Amateur, I couldn't hold a club," Sahith said. "My joint was messed up, tendon was gone, TFCC was torn. It was just a mess.

In total, he took 11 months off from tournaments and couldn't play at all for six of them after surgery. In those 11 months, he worked with his coach to refine his swing to where it would put less pressure on his wrist. In his downtime, he developed a love of chess. He watched a lot of his Los Angeles Lakers. And when it was time to come back, he came back better than ever, dominating college golf as a senior to the point where he became only the fifth player ever to sweep all three major National Player of the Year awards.

"That time away was great perspective too. I think that helped me mentally too," Sahith said. "I was so hungry when I got back but at the same time, I was like golf doesn't mean life and death and sometimes you need a reminder. I just think of that whole thing as a blessing instead of a setback."

Dad's Birthday Gift

Ironically, in arguably the biggest moment of Sahith's career, Murly couldn't be there because he was moving his youngest son, Sahan, into Seton Hall University for his freshman year. Instead, he was following closely on the PGA TOUR app as his boy delivered an early birthday present with a T4 at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship. He knew that T4 would be enough for his boy to secure his first PGA TOUR card.

"I said, 'Boy, you gave me a great birthday present!'" Murly said. "Because I knew a T4, mathematically there was a chance he could get eliminated, but I knew there was no way that he could miss a PGA TOUR card. I knew in my heart of hearts, but we didn't want to celebrate until the next event."

When Sahith, 23, made the cut the following week at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance, it was official and Murly and his wife, Karuna, flew out to get to Nebraska in time for the card ceremony.

"I think it finally hit me on Sunday night when he was finishing up 18. This is for real," Murly said. "He made it!"

The pride Murly has in his boy seemingly oozes out with every word and every inflection as he speaks. It's the type of pride and joy that comes from parenthood but also from being a cheerleader, chauffeur, and financier for every step of the journey. Even a premonition that the boy was special was a kid couldn't have prepared Murly for this journey. His boy, Sahith, is now a PGA TOUR member, competing against the guys he used to watch with him on TV.

"There's no words," Murly said. "That day when I told him he gave me the best birthday present, it hit me finally, I said, 'Oh my god, this is like a dream come true!' because I've watched thousands of junior golfers and so many great swings and so many great players and here in the end my boy did it! Seeing his name at the end, it made me so proud!"

Proud not just because of what he's accomplished on the golf course but proud because he never quit. Proud because he got his degree from Pepperdine while juggling the full-time job that is college athletics. Proud because it didn't come easy even after turning pro as the top-ranked player in the country. Proud because of the type of person he's grown up to be.

"We all understood how much he went through to get that. It's just a very proud moment. It's a story that unless you've been there it's so hard to realize," Murly said. "Going through the process, it's not easy and what he did is amazing, amazing, amazing."

It's a process that is difficult for everyone turning pro but was made even more difficult by the timing of when Sahith was - Spring 2020, also known as about the worst possible time to turn pro due to the pandemic. Professional golf was on hiatus for nearly three months, creating deeper fields than ever and making it more difficult than ever to get sponsor exemptions when it returned. Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying Tournament was cancelled for the year, and the NCAA Championship had been cancelled, too, so his name didn't get out there as much as most National Player of the Years would. He also narrowly missed out at Forme Tour Q-School.

"Unfortunately, with COVID, opportunities just came less," Murly said.

He even considered going back to college for another year after the NCAA granted another year of eligibility to every player due to the pandemic. But ultimately, there was nothing left to prove on the college golf scene, so he remained a pro even with nowhere confirmed to play.

"I just wanted to compete," Sahith said.

He even filled in the lean weeks with mini-tour events, winning a couple times to give him the confidence that he could do it at the pro level too. In his seven TOUR starts, he earned just enough non-member FedExCup points to sneak inside the top 200 and earn a spot in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals. He was so close that he even flew on a red eye from Reno, Nevada to the Wyndham Championship Monday qualifier to try to earn more non-member points at the regular season finale then flew to the Korn Ferry Tour's regular season finale after he missed.

Ultimately, his 197 non-member points ended up being enough.

"I was like, 'Sweet! For the first time all year I have a schedule of three events in a row I know I'm going to play in,'" Sahith recalled.

There will be more where that came from for Murly's boy on the PGA TOUR this season.