Fueled by support, Theegala cruises to Napa breakthrough

Fueled by support, Theegala cruises to Napa breakthrough
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Sahith Theegala didn’t need to play this week’s Fortinet Championship.

He wanted to play.

Theegala doesn’t just have his PGA Tour card locked up for next season; he’ll play all the signature events as well. But when asked why he was one of just five top-50 FedExCup finishers in the field for the fall-series opener at Silverado Resort in Napa, California – and, at No. 31 in points, the highest-ranked player aside from No. 9 Max Homa – Theegala rightfully popped back.

“I don’t think that’s a great question,” Theegala said, before politely explaining his reasoning.

Sure, many of the Tour’s stars who finished safely inside that select 50-man group will take the entire fall off. However, Theegala isn’t most guys. The SoCal native relishes events on the West Coast, and that poa annua grass. One of his best buddies lives nearby, too. But most of all, Theegala loves this tournament, which extended him a sponsor invitation shortly after he turned professional with no status on any tour and in the middle of the pandemic (OK, so he also was the reigning college player of the year who won four times at Pepperdine).

Theegala loves it even more after Sunday.

The 25-year-old Theegala picked up his first career PGA Tour victory by winning the Fortinet in convincing fashion, turning a two-shot lead at the start of the round into a comfortable two-shot win at 21 under.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Theegala said just moments after tapping in his final putt, the 62nd make in 64 attempts inside 10 feet for the week. “It’s probably not going to set in for a while. But man, that was a lot of good golf, and that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

Theegala’s closing bogey at the par-5 18th hole and three late birdies by runner-up S.H. Kim made a back-nine runaway appear closer than it was, though one only had to listen to the cheers from the nearly three dozen members of Team Theegala with a few holes to play to realize this thing was over well before the final putt.

The support group is led by Theegala’s parents, dad Murli and mom Karuna, and fluctuates from tournament to tournament. With Theegala grabbing hold of the 54-hole lead, it swelled to an estimated 35 family members and friends as eight more drove up from Southern California on Saturday night.

“The PGA Tour was nice,” Murli Theegala said. “I asked for extra tickets, and they just dumped so many onto the Ticketmaster, and we said, ‘Come on all, guys. We need a big support here.’”

Sahith Theegala felt it.

After he birdied four of his first seven holes to take command.

And definitely after draining a 20-footer for birdie at No. 14, one of his three birdies coming in.

Even as he coasted into the clubhouse by hacking a couple shots out of the rough on the final hole to card 4-under 68, the Theegala chants – Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la! – seemingly never stopped.

“I go to bed at night these last few days and I’m like, I can’t believe how many people are cheering for me and rooting for me,” Sahith said. “… They meant everything. Just like the way I am, I kind of keep my head down and keep going and stay focused, but I secretly just loving the cheering. It gets me fired up. And just knowing that I have that support no matter the good golf or the bad golf, they just have my back, and I hope they know that I have their back, too.”

When Theegala suffered a heartbreaking defeat as a rookie at last year’s WM Phoenix Open, Murli and Karuna were there to comfort their son after he broke down in tears during his post-round interview.

“It’s OK,” Murli told his son as the three of them embraced, the message picked up by a Netflix mic. “You’ll get your day soon.”

Theegala had to endure a couple more close-calls – runners-up at last year’s Travelers Championship and RSM Classic. He then posted a handful of top-10s early this year, including a ninth at the Masters, to bank some FedExCup points and rise to a career-best No. 32 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but following a T-5 at the RBC Heritage, Theegala slumped hard, not cracking the top-10 again until Sunday and falling back to No. 37 in the world at the start of the week.

After falling one shot shy of advancing to East Lake for a second straight year at the BMW Championship, Theegala put away his clubs for a week and a half. He then flew home from Houston to his parents’ home in Chino Hills last week to celebrate Murli’s birthday before heading up to Napa, where he’d practice a little more than usual as he was debuting a new set of Ping irons after about seven years using a combo of older models.

“I usually don’t switch,” Theegala said on Friday, “but they feel really good, and it’s nice to have some validation right off the bat.”

Further proof came Sunday evening as Theegala, for the first time, hoisted a PGA Tour trophy – one of the first he ever played for – into the air, his loved ones still cheering.

That is why he played this week.

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