Column: Sahith Theegala and fun-loving family spice up Farmers Insurance Open


Sahith Theegala greets family and friends Friday after the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
Sahith Theegala, greeting family and friends Friday after the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, is tied for fourth as he hunts his first PGA Tour victory.
(Meg McLaughlin / U-T)

American-born player of Indian descent piling up top-10 finishes early in his PGA Tour career, contending at Torrey Pines

Understanding the mental and emotional root system of PGA Tour golfer Sahith Theegala requires hanging out with his family as they cheer and laugh their way around the rope lines at the Farmers Insurance Open.

His uncle, Rathnaker Reddy, tells the story of how, when Sahith became the first among a gaggle of cousins to get his driver’s license at 16, they would lose track of him. Instead of chasing girls or trouble, the family learned he was taking the youngest among the bunch on ice-cream runs.

To make sure everyone could go, he routinely made two trips. He continued to do it until he graduated from Pepperdine.

His cousin, Sanjana Kurapati, said the kids grew up holding sleepovers and watching horror movies. Though golf now scatters Sahith to the birdie-chasing winds, it still happens when they’re together.

“He’s the most thoughtful human being you’ll find out here,” she said. “He’ll be playing a tournament and he’ll still call and spend a couple minutes to talking to me about my work (in the tech industry).

“We got coffee (Friday morning) and we didn’t talk about golf once. It was about my work, my life, as if nothing is happening around us, just like when we were kids.”

Then there’s the shushing.

The pride and joy in Sahith bubbles out of the family time and again. They keep course marshals on their toes when others prepare to hit on neighboring holes. In a sport that can feel buttoned-down and deathly quiet, they flirt with shush-inducing enthusiasm.

It happened shortly after Theegala followed a round-opening birdie with an eagle on a 69-yard fairway wedge checked up and spun in as the crowd roared. Along the way, the family cheers for solid shots by his Sahith’s competitors too.


“I remember parents asking, ‘Why are you cheering for the other kid?’ ” his father, Murli, said. “It doesn’t matter. For me, it’s fun. I’m enjoying the game.”

Fun remains in full supply.

Reddy explained that the family of caddie Carl Smith and Smith’s girlfriend, created “Birdies for Beers” based on Theegala’s play. They drink a beer after each birdie, and a cocktail after eagles.


The better Theegala has gotten, the more peril the tradition presents.

“I know, right?” Reddy said with a laugh. “I might not be able to walk.”

The family undoubtedly will appear in the upcoming Netflix documentary about a range of Tour players called “Full Swing” that debuts Feb. 15. That, along with Theegala’s play, is certain to elevate his profile on the American golf scene.


He threatened to win both the Travelers Championship last June and the Phoenix Open four months before that, finishing in a tie for second and tie for third respectively. In November, Theegala tied for second at The RSM Classic. He paired with Tom Hoge the next month to win the QBE Shootout, an unofficial Tour event.

“Every week, I feel like I’m learning something,” he said. “Even if the golf gets a little worse that week, I feel like I’m making progress as a whole. … The goal is just to put myself in more positions like these.”

It’s not fully clear, but Theegala very well could be the first American-born player of Indian descent to play on the PGA Tour. Arjun Atwal became the first Indian-born player to win a Tour event in 2010.


Though Tour representatives could not identify another player tilling the same ancestral ground as Theegala, he’s doing trailblazing of some significant stripe. Heady stuff, considering that a 20-something could single-handedly increase the conversation about golf in a nation of 1.4 billion people.

“It’s cool that I inspire a new generation, not just Indian-Americans but minorities in general,” Theegala said. “Just to see someone who looks like them in the ‘big leagues’ is really cool. I’ve gotten so many positive messages and people yelling for me. It’s awesome to see.

“I don’t see it as any extra pressure, extra responsibility, nothing like that. I just think it’s a great bonus.”


And back to those shush-ees. Theegala’s first Masters looms in April. The family joked that they’re training now to regulate the volume without gutting the fun.

“They’re going to be shushed a lot,” Theegala said with a chuckle. “I think it happens every round. They love it. They’re in the moment.”

Then there’s Birdies for Beers. Told that his uncle feigned mock concern as the career of the family’s golf star rockets upward, Theegala grinned.


“Hopefully he’ll be carried out (sometime),” he said. “That’s my goal eventually. That means I did something good.”

The better Theegala plays, the more the fun ramps up.

Can you blame them?