Pepperdine’s Theegala rides a wave of momentum onto PGA TOUR

Sahith Theegala is just the fifth player in the last 30 years to win both the Haskins and Hogan trophies. (Getty Images)

CROMWELL, Conn. – Forever a piece of history, it is yellowed and frail, this picture of him that ran on page 25 of the Chino Champion in August of 2006. Sahith Theegala of Chino Hills had brought Presidio Hills to its knees, a closing 51 giving him a two-stroke win.

He was a Junior World champion for the second time – and he was only 8. A local hero, so the community paper understandably trumpeted Theegala’s feat with the headline, “Another Tiger.” Pure hyperbole, of course, given that the real Tiger, the esteemed Eldrick Woods who had grown up 40 miles away, in Cypress, was winning The Open Championship and PGA Championship, major titles 11 and 12, in that Summer of ’06.

But, hey, the local kid made it three Junior World titles in 2008 so maybe the Chino Champion was on to something.

Theegala smiles at the sweet nostalgia. But, alas, “it looks like I peaked (too early),” he laughs.

On the contrary, young man, if it’s possible to get a photo of you holding both the Fred Haskins and Ben Hogan awards it would provide proof that you are respectfully humble. Fact is, Sahith Theegala might just be reaching his potential at just the right time for him and the right time for the game.

Kids, after all, are earning accolades in impressive speed and as the son of immigrants from India, Theegala provides more flavor to the growing multi-cultural landscape that is the PGA TOUR.

It seemingly is a rite of early summer, this stop at TPC River Highlands for the annual Travelers Championship. What is different, of course, is the nature of the PGA TOUR in this pandemic – no spectators on site, but jam-packed leaderboards with top-of-the-world talents putting up a sea of red numbers. But what remains refreshingly brilliant about this tournament is the wide-eyed kids who get sponsor exemptions to give a boost to their new-found pro golf career.

Theegala, 22, is this year’s star attraction, fresh off having become just the fifth player in the last 30 years to win both the Haskins and Hogan trophies as the nation’s top collegian. Bittersweet, in some respects, as the pandemic brought a screeching halt to the collegiate season in March and Theegala never got a chance to try and help Pepperdine’s chances in the NCAA Tournament.

But life moves quickly and so Theegala had little time to wallow in disappointment. There were decisions to be made and the one he chose – to turn professional and turn down the NCAA’s offer to play his senior year over again in 2020-21 – is one he is at peace with.

“I know others chose to go back (to college) and I respect that. For them, it was the right decision. I know Q Schools (for the Korn Ferry Tour) have been canceled, and (that is a big deal). But for me, I’ve already spent five years in college,” said Theegala, who redshirted the 2018-19 season because of a wrist injury.

“I had that extra year to mature and develop, to get a new perspective on life. I feel I’m ready.”

About to raise a cup of skepticism, are you? Be careful, because in serenity and warmth during a late-Tuesday practice round, Theegala walked side-by-side with a boyhood friend, a kid from La Canada Flintridge, only 40 miles from Chino Hills. Collin Morikawa would be right to knock that cup of skepticism out of your hands – only he’s far too well-mannered.

Likely, though, Morikawa would offer you a reminder of what transpired at last year’s Travelers when he was making just his third PGA TOUR start as a pro, the same week that Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland were making their pro debuts.

For the record, Mr. Skeptic, all three of those young men have since won on the PGA TOUR and Morikawa might never miss a cut.

“It is so cool to see the journey they are on,” said Theegala, who played in far too many junior tournaments with Morikawa to count. He also crossed paths with Wolff, as all three of them grew up on Southern California munis.

“But there is no one who knows those guys who would tell you they’re surprised at what they’ve already done. They are really good, and they prove that the level between the top collegians and the pro game isn’t that big a gap.”

Theegala’s mission is to close that gap even more. But he surely appreciates that he’s taking on the challenge in crazy times.

“I hope to play in a few (PGA TOUR) tournaments,” said Theegala, who has a spot this week and next week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, with some others in the pipeline. “If not, I know some minitours have stepped up and I’ll play in some Monday qualifiers. I’ll just play as much as I can.”

Doubt him at your peril, for Theegala has already presented enough testimony to justify his plunge into the pro golf business. Ten years after that “Another Tiger” photo in the Chino Champion, Theegala as an 18-year-old pushed aside a trio of stellar youngsters in the U.S. Amateur – Justin Suh, Sam Burns, Joaquin Niemann – before losing in the quarterfinals to eventual winner Curtis Luck.

Guess he hadn’t peaked before his 10th birthday, because six months after that performance at Oakland Hills, Theegala earned a sliver of the spotlight at one of his favorite layouts, Riviera Country Club, in the Genesis Invitational. Having gotten into by winning a qualifier for collegians, Theegala shot a first-round 67 to sit inside the top 10, made the cut and played 36 weekend holes next to Phil Mickelson.

“I had so many family and friends, being just 20 minutes from Pepperdine,” said Theegala. “And two holes in, Phil was treating me like he’s known me for years. It was so great.”

Mickelson edged Theegala, 71-69 to 71-71, on the weekend, but it was the best finish (T-49) for an amateur in the Genesis since Mike Springer in 1988.

If you put stock in a kid who appears to be constantly moving forward, then Theegala deserves your attention. He got through a qualifier for the 2017 U.S. Open and his collegiate career (46 tournaments, three wins, 19 top 10s) shows steady improvement in scoring average until posting the nation’s best scoring average (69.04) in his final season.

If there is a downside to this week’s tournament, it’s that his parents, Karuna and Muralidhar, can’t be in attendance to watch because of the pandemic.

“They’re so supportive to me and that’s why I am at peace with this decision, because I have great people behind me,” said Theegala, who does have one familiar face to lean on at the Travelers – his caddie, Pepperdine coach Mike Beard.

“He has always believed in me. I wasn’t a great recruit, but coach believed in me. Even when I was struggling in high school, he supported me,” said Theegala. “He knows my game.”

It’s one that appears ready to make the leap into the pro game.