Q&A with Sahith Theegala about chess, Kobe and the unique way he plays the game
April 27, 2021
By Nick Parker, PGATOUR.COM
Sahith Theegala looks to take advantage at the Huntsville Championship after Monday qualifying. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sahith Theegala, the 2020 Haskins Award and Ben Hogan Award winner as college golf’s top player, is beginning to make his presence felt on the Korn Ferry Tour too. Theegala, who finished T14 at the PGA TOUR’s Safeway Open in September, has opened 2021 with four consecutive made cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour including a T9 at the MGM Resorts Championship at Paiute. Following a T43 at the Veritex Bank Championship, the Pepperdine grad is up to No. 144 on the Korn Ferry Tour Points Standings and hoping to play his way into more Korn Ferry Tour starts and eventually the Korn Ferry Tour Finals.
Theegala, who entered the season without Korn Ferry Tour membership, will have another shot at it after earning his way in the field again this week at the Huntsville Championship after blitzing the Monday qualifier with a 10-under 61.
PGA TOUR Digital caught up with Theegala following his 61 to discuss his love of chess, American Ninja Warrior, Kobe, the unique way he plays the game, and his plans for the remainder of the season.
Away from the golf course, what do you like to do?
I’ve always been a big sports fan. I love playing basketball, I love watching basketball, fantasy football, NFL, that kind of stuff. More recently like the last few years I’ve been getting into chess. I haven’t played in a little while right now, but there was a time last year where I was playing every day for an hour or two, so I’ve become a pretty big chess guy. That’s about it really. Obviously, I think the COVID stuff everyone’s been watching TV shows and movies, but I haven’t been doing that. I’ve just been YouTubing and watching Twitch streams and playing video games.
How did you get into chess and how good have you gotten?
I learned chess when I was a young kid, but I didn’t play for 10 years in between there. I did Chess Masters in elementary school. But after that, one of the freshmen that came in in 2019 his name is Derek he was like I play chess; do you want to play? I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and I thought I’d beat him easily. But he destroyed me, so he kind of got me back into chess, and that happened to be the year I injured my wrist too, so I wasn’t able to play any sports, so I was sitting indoors all day just trying to get better at chess. But finally, I want to say early 2020 was when I was finally able to beat him a few times, and now I think I can beat him pretty consistently. He still gets me from time to time for sure, but that’s how I got into it. Obviously, the Queen’s Gambit, the TV show recently, I think has gotten a lot of people to play more chess too but that kind of rekindled the chess for me as well.
I saw you were big into video games…what video games do you like to play?
I used to play a bunch of Minecraft back in the day, but more recently I’ve been playing smaller games such as Among Us. I don’t even know. They’re not even big games on the computer with my friends but only on the PC. I don’t play consoles.
What’s one thing you’d buy or do if you won a PGA TOUR event?
That’s tough. I can’t tell you I’ve thought of that one before. It sounds cliché but I’d definitely want to either buy my mom a new car or my dad. I’m not 100% sure. That’ll be a game time decision, but I definitely want to get them a nice car. The next thing would probably be a nice car for myself. That’s kind of the one thing if I’m going to spend the money in the future if I’m lucky enough to have that type of money would be a nice car for myself.
What would be your dream foursome?
I got to put Tiger in there, probably my coach Michael Beard from Pepperdine, and my dad even though he never plays golf, but I got to put him in there because he’s the one that taught me the game pretty much.
If you could meet one athlete, who would it be?
I’ve never gotten to meet Kobe and unfortunately, I never will, but he was definitely on top of my list. He was my sports idol growing up, so that would definitely be the one. I’d also love to meet Federer or Nadal. I’m not a huge tennis guy, but obviously two of the greatest to ever play the sport so I’d love to get to pick their brain.
I saw you wearing a Kobe jersey after winning a college tournament. Did you wear the jersey during the event?
I was actually going to wear it on a couple holes, but I was actually leading the tournament so I was like I probably shouldn’t try and swing with an extra jersey on, but I wore it right after I hit my second shot up to the green and hit my last two putts with it on and gave a shout out to my guy, paying respects to Kobe. That happened two days before, and I lived in an apartment in Calabasas and the accident happened half a mile from my apartment in those hills right above my apartment.
Besides Tiger, who were your favorite players growing up?
Tony Finau, Jon Rahm, Collin, all the young guys now, I love watching. Henrik Stenson has always been my guy too.
How’d you start pulling for Stenson?
I just loved his swing. It just looked so effortless, and the dude is just obviously a stripe show. At first, I just thought it was funny when he got upset. He had like a compilation of chunking his club in the water, and breaking tee boxes, but he just seemed like a really cool guy off the golf course. Sure enough he was. But honestly, I can’t really tell you why. I’ve just loved Stenson for a long time, and all my friends can corroborate that.
It says on your Pepperdine bio that you’re really into SpongeBob. Is that still true?
Oh that’s 100% true. SpongeBob was my show growing up. I still love SpongeBob. I haven’t watched it in a while, but yeah, SpongeBob was my stuff.
It also said you like Ninja Warrior. Would you ever go on the show?
Oh god, I have zero upper body strength. I’d have no chance. I don’t know if I’d even get past the first log jumps, jumping from side to side, but I definitely binged some American Ninja Warrior back in the day. I haven’t watched that in a while, but I love that show.
Who would you say is most responsible for getting you to where you are today as you think back to your career in golf?
That’s pretty easy one for me. It’s definitely my father. We weren’t in the greatest financial situation when I was a kid. My dad was the first one from his entire family that moved to the States, and he made it on his own. And it was different because we had no experience with sports at all, so he spearheaded the whole mission to college and professional golf. So, I’d definitely say my father. He put everything that he could into me. My mom, too, sacrificed so much for me, but my dad’s definitely the reason I’m playing professional golf today. Another person that was really influential to me is my head coach at Pepperdine Michael Beard. I’d say I was a pretty good junior golfer, but I wasn’t super highly recruited. But at Pepperdine, I went from average to slightly good to what I felt like was ready to be a decent professional golfer.
Tell me more about those sacrifices that your family made. I know you said y’all weren’t in the best financial situation.
I wouldn’t say we were in a terrible financial situation, but we were definitely like lower middle class. Not a lot of expendable income and all the expendable income that we had was being spent on my golf. So that’s something I never take for granted. Looking back on it, I didn’t really think of it as much. At the time I was like whatever, but yeah, looking back at it, they could have gotten a nice car. That’s one of the reasons the first thing I want to get is to get them a nice car. Growing up, we never had them a nice car really, but the first car they got me when I was 16 was the nicest car we had. It was a Volkswagen Passat. It’s tough to put into words, but they just sacrificed so much time and money on me when I was a kid.
Was qualifying for Genesis and making the cut and then qualifying for the U.S. Open in 2017, was that when you really started thinking you could become a professional golfer and you could do this?
Obviously in the back of my mind I really wanted to be, but I wasn’t really sure if that was feasible. I was starting to play really well at the end of the summer before leading up to my sophomore year. It all came together that end of winter and beginning of spring of 2017. So yeah, got into Genesis through the Monday Showcase, which was awesome. Played great there and kind of saw that it was doable. Obviously one tournament, you don’t really know, but I ended up winning my first college event two weeks after that, so that was great. That just gave me more confidence and more self-belief. Obviously, qualifying for the US Open, I got to play with Dustin and Brooks in a practice round and saw insane those two guys are. So that motivated me a little bit more too. But yeah, that year was definitely big for me.
How crazy was that to go from not being highly recruited to winning both the Haskins Award and Ben Hogan Award as a senior?
Yeah, it was pretty surreal. It’s still surreal to think that I did that. That’s crazy. But I definitely have to put my wrist injury in 2019 as a big reason why. It gave me a different perspective on life itself. For so long, I’ve been chasing golf and all the sudden hurt my wrist pretty bad and couldn’t play a tournament for 10 months. So, I was away from the thing that I’ve been doing my whole life, and it was really cool to see that no matter what had a good support system of family and friends behind me backing me in whatever I do and hopefully they know I have their back too. But just having that perspective getting back to playing golf and I was fired up having not played a tournament for a while, I think that all led up to that year. And have to shout out my longtime swing coach Rick Hunter as well for not reconstructing my swing but definitely making it so longevity in my career is going to be a thing because I was kind of lashing at it before and that’s a little bit why my wrist injury got so bad. I just made it worse with my swing and getting that figured out was big too.
Your swing and game are said to be quite unique compared to most pros. Why do you think people say that about your game?
I definitely feel like I play golf differently. I don’t have a cookier cutter swing. I have a very unique swing and not the most consistent in terms of ball flight or stuff like that, but I feel like my short game has always been saving my butt. I have a long backstroke on both my chipping and putting and little bit of a decel into the ball and I’ve always been able to hit some nippers I guess. I play unconventionally. I like to work the ball a lot. I like playing the angles. I know a funny moment for me at the 2016 US Am, I took it down other fairways like almost half the holes. It was crazy. I just enjoy that kind of stuff on the course.
What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been on a golf course?
Oh man, honestly, it was probably in junior golf. I feel like recently I’ve been able to control my nerves really well. For me, most of the time, it’s the first tee shot or first hole or two, but a specific moment, this is kind of stupid, but I had a 5-footer at the Safeway in the fall of 2020 to get in the top-10 and get into the next week and that was the first time I was really competing at the top of the leaderboard and I think the stakes got to me a little bit in that moment and I didn’t just hit the putt. I let it get to hit my head and I missed it. I came into 14th and If I made it, I would have came in ninth, which would have given me another start and a little extra points. But I was very nervous on that putt, and I just let the moment get to me. But it was also a great learning experience.
What are some of your favorite courses you’ve ever played and is there a course on your bucket list that you haven’t played yet but want to?
Riviera is definitely one of them. I think obviously it was the site of my first PGA TOUR event, but that course is awesome regardless. Marta’s Camp in Truckee is one of my favorite courses ever. Alotian Club in Arkansas was pretty sweet. Definitely in the top five would be those three for sure. Nothing else really pops up on my mind. I haven’t played a lot of golf internationally, so I still want to play the Old Course in Scotland. I played the New Course and Carnoustie, but I haven’t played the Old Course. I played Victoria Golf Club in Australia, but I wasn’t able to play Royal Melbourne and that would be cool.
You’ve had success this year on the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour but don’t have membership on either of those tours just yet, so what’s your plan for the rest of the year?
The plan is to keep trying to ride this train out on the Korn Ferry Tour. I think I’ve done decent in points the last four weeks. If I have another good week or two, I might be able to get some guaranteed starts for the rest of this year. And then I have Colonial and Memorial coming up in a month, so I’m pumped for those. Hopefully I play well there and kind of secure at least my status for Korn Ferry Tour Finals, which I think is top 200 for non-member points. Either one or the other. I’m just going to play it by ear depending on how these next few weeks go for Korn Ferry Tour. But yes, either continue to doing Korn Ferry Tour qualifiers or play my way in or go the PGA TOUR route and try to secure Finals through non-member points.