After wrenching spring, prospects looking up for new pro Sahith Theegala
Sahith Theegala was in golf’s No Man’s Land, and he knew it. Behind him was a brilliant college golf career at Pepperdine that was cruelly cut short by the coronavirus. Ahead? Well, that was like trying to peer through a curtain of fog on a rare bad day in Malibu.
One discouraging headline followed another. The PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour postponed and canceled events, cutting off the lifeline for a new pro hoping to make an immediate splash. This year, there would be no Korn Ferry Qualifying School, the other most obvious route.
When the PGA Tour did return to play, Theegala pondered, would there be any room on sponsor’s exemptions—even for the Haskins Award winner as the nation’s top college golfer—with so many pros desperate to earn a paycheck?
“I was ready to turn pro,” Theegala said. “Then all this stuff turned that on its head. It made for a tough decision.”
The choice being to return to Pepperdine for what would be a sixth year (Theegala had to redshirt in 2018-’19 due to wrist surgery), as granted by the NCAA because of the coronavirus impact, or go pro and hope there were enough opportunities to have a shot at following the path of winning PGA Tour rookies Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland.
Theegala opted to leave the college bubble, and that decision looks more promising as the days go by. On June 2, the day after Theegala opened his professional career by shooting a nine-under 62 in an Outlaw Tour event in Arizona, he received the official invitation to play in the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, July 2-5. Also getting an exemption is another standout recent graduate, BYU’s Peter Kuest.
Reflecting at home on Friday morning in Chino Hills, Calif., after a long drive back from Arizona, where he ultimately finished T-3 at 16 under, Theegala said on the phone that he was grateful to Rocket Mortgage tournament director Jason Langwell for the “awesome” opportunity.
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“This was huge,” Theegala, 22, said. “There’s a big difference between hoping to get an exemption and getting the word from them that you’re in. I wouldn’t say it was a relief; I was just really excited. I was just pumped they gave me an opportunity.”
He is optimistic about getting sponsor’s chances at other events, though couldn’t be specific about where because invitations have not been finalized. Theegala acknowledged the opportunities are limited by what is left of the PGA Tour schedule—at least until September, when the Tour is set to begin the 2020-’21 campaign.
It was those circumstances he had to consider when deciding about possibly going back to Pepperdine, which finished the incomplete season as the No. 1-ranked team in the country. The choice to return to school has been made by other top seniors, including Vanderbilt's John Augenstein, the 2019 U.S. Amateur runner-up.
“It definitely wasn’t clear cut,” Theegala said. “It was something that we talked about a little bit. In my mind, I was never on the side of going back. I felt like I was ready. A lot of people around me felt like I was ready. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to go back. As much as I wanted to go back with the team and win a national championship, it would have been a sixth year. I did my major. I would have had to do a master’s program. I would have been OK with that, but there’s additional stuff. It’s not as easy going back to college as people might think.”
A huge boost for going pro came on May 8, when Theegala was named the Haskins winner, an honor that often affords its own set of perks.
“It would have most likely been different if I didn’t get the Haskins or wasn’t the No. 1 college golfer,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had anywhere to play over the summer. At least with getting the Haskins I’ll get the opportunity to play on the big tour.”
Ranked No. 3 in the Official World Amateur Golf Ranking and the owner of two wins and six top-10 finishes in the shortened college season, Theegala is a birdie machine (his 101 were fourth in the country this season) with loads of upside. He’s already played in two majors and made the cut in the 2017 Genesis Open at Riviera. And he has watched intently as peers against whom he’s competed and beaten have quickly risen on the PGA Tour.
“I remember watching the Rocket Mortgage last year when Nate Lashley won and Doc Redmond finished second,” Theegala said. “It was awesome seeing that. I had just played with Doc. One good week is enough to change your career path.”