With a dispiriting three-putt bogey on the final hole on Thursday, Sahith Theegala, whose humble public golf course roots, unpretentious demeanour, and near victory at last month’s Waste Management Phoenix Open have propelled him to the top of the PGA Tour’s rising young stars list, finished his round with a dispiriting three-putt bogey.
When Theegala arrived at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he had hoped for something more than a one-over par 73, but he was disappointed. Theegala is an Indian American from California and the only nonwhite player on the tour. As he walked off the final green, the look of despair on his face was clear. However, after just a few feet, Theegala, 24, burst into a grin as he kindly approached two volunteers who had followed him as scorekeepers for the previous 18 holes in the suffocating heat.
In retrospect, Theegala’s courteous applause when his playing partners were presented to the crowd before their first shots was an appropriate way to bring the day to an end on the first tee only hours before. Professional golfers applauding their opponents before a round is rare, if not unheard of, particularly at the highest levels of the sport’s top division.
If Theegala’s courageous performance as a tour rookie had not already gained him many admirers, a video shared on Twitter immediately after the event, showing him sobbing on his mother Karuna’s shoulders, further added to his growing list of supporters.
The 6-foot-3 athlete Theegala also suffers from scoliosis, which causes what he describes as “a very substantial bend to the right” in his spine. That might explain his slightly atypical swinging motion. Acute Theegala pain is not caused by this disorder.
Tilting his head slightly to the right as a youngster learning to play golf on a dusty, inferior municipal course near his home in Southern California, Theegala developed a putting stroke that allows him to more easily observe the necessary path from his ball to the hole. Even from a distance of 100 yards, the profile of his unusual putting stance on a putting green is visible.
It explains why Theegala, a former junior champion who has won three college golfer of the year accolades during his time at Pepperdine, had a sizable crowd following him throughout the first round on Thursday. As spectators chanted his first name as encouragement, even though they could not always pronounce it right, Theegala had an interesting day, making three birdies and four bogeys on his 18-hole round.
Despite just having been on the PGA Tour for a short period of time, he has risen to 42nd in the season-long FedEx Cup standings. In the tee box, he is quite long — on Thursday, he frequently outdrove his playing partners Russell Henley and Troy Merritt — and his short game is a blend of elegance and cleverness that can be summarised in a single word: touch.
Theegala is well aware, however, that as an Indian American, he is treated differently in a sport that has never made it simple for nonwhite players to reach the top levels of the professional ranks in the past.
Theegala cracked a grin. Even before he finished, his three-putt on the last hole looked like a distant memory. He seems unusually calm on the golf field, considering that he is playing such a difficult game.