LOS ANGELES (March 14, 2017) – Pepperdine University sophomore Sahith Theegala figured out a way to get a jump on the competition while continuing his preparation for the 2017 U.S. Amateur Championship in Los Angeles this summer.
He arranged for a few practice rounds at The Riviera Country Club the hard way — by qualifying as an amateur for the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open in February.
Theegala, 19, won the Genesis Open’s Collegiate Showcase by shooting a 2-under 69 at historic Riviera on the Monday of tournament week, thus earning the tour event’s last sponsor’s exemption into the star-studded field at Riviera, where the 117th U.S. Amateur will be contested in August.
Then he took full advantage of the opportunity to play Riviera under tournament conditions by beating more than half of the 155 tour pros and making the cut, essentially giving him four days of invaluable practice for the Amateur.
With a large and vocal gallery of family, friends and Pepperdine teammates cheering him on in every round, Theegala shot 67-73-71-71 to finish in red numbers at 2-under par and tie for 49th in the rain-delayed Genesis Open.
More impressively, Sahith (pronounced SAW-heth) finished four shots ahead of Jason Day, then the No. 1 player in the world, and was 10 shots ahead of defending champion Bubba Watson when he withdrew late in the second round. Theegala also finished ahead of top-10 players Hideki Matsuyama, a three-time tour winner this year, and Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed.
Were he not an amateur, Theegala would have pocketed more than $17,000 in prize money. But that part of his future can wait. He has other things on his mind this year.
It was an unforgettable week for Sahith that exceeded all expectations, highlighted by being paired with World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson in the final two rounds. After winning the college qualifier, all he wanted to do was have fun and take mental notes to help him during this year’s U.S. Amateur (Aug. 14-20). He accomplished all of that and much, much more.
“It was awesome playing competitive rounds at ‘Riv’ in tournament conditions, which is something not many in the U.S. Amateur will be able to say,” Theegala said during an interview on the final day of the Genesis Open. “All week, we’ve been talking about how big this is going to be for me, just mentally. It gives me an unbelievable amount of confidence.”
Theegala, who is exempt from qualifying for the U.S. Amateur because he advanced to the quarterfinals at last year’s U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, should ride that emotional edge.
That’s because the first two days of the U.S. Amateur will be played on courses he now knows well. He’ll play 18 holes of stroke play at Riviera and 18 holes of stroke play at Bel-Air Country Club — where the Pepperdine men’s team practices on most Wednesdays during the season.
Each player in the 312-player field at the U.S. Amateur plays 18 holes at two courses and the lowest 64 scorers move on to the match-play portion of the championship. Those players in the bracket compete in single-elimination 18-hole matches that culminate with a 36-hole championship match on Sunday at Riviera.
“By the time I get to the Amateur, I’ll probably have played Bel-Air 10 times,” Theegala said. “And even though I hadn’t played Riviera before (Genesis Open week), now I’ve played six competitive rounds in some tough conditions. Love the course; it’s a beautiful and challenging layout; it’s awesome … And since our team plays Bel-Air, I’m definitely going to have a great mindset going into the Amateur.”
Very few in the game knew his name until Theegala’s improbable run at Oakland Hills. But he has been a ball-striking prodigy since the first time he picked up a set of plastic clubs and began chipping balls into a bucket, prompting his father, Murli, to buy him a real set. The Orange County, California-born son of parents who emigrated from India, Sahith won the first tournament he ever entered – the Junior World Championship in San Diego at age 6. He went on to win two more Junior Worlds at 8 and 10. He also won the L.A. City Championship at 16, the Orange County Championship at 17 and led his Diamond Bar High team to four consecutive league titles and two CIF Southern Section titles.
Though he had a successful first season at Pepperdine, compiling a team-best 71.06 scoring average and earning West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year honors, Theegala was ranked just 316th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ by the time he qualified for the 2016 Amateur. And after shooting 2-over-par through 36 holes of stroke play at Oakland Hills, he found himself in a 23-man playoff for the last eight spots in match play.
It took seven holes and nearly four hours to complete the playoff, but Sahith survived and advanced. (Stanford’s Maverick McNealy, the world’s top-ranked amateur, was eliminated in that same playoff.)
But Cinderella was just getting to the dance. Seeded 61st among the 64 match-play qualifiers, Theegala proceeded to upset USC’s Justin Suh, LSU’s Sam Burns and Joaquin Niemann, of Chile, in succession before losing, 2-down in the quarterfinals, to Australian Curtis Luck, the eventual U.S. Amateur champion.
In retrospect, those results should have tipped off everyone about a star on the rise. After all, McNealy, Luck and Niemann were ranked 1-2-3 in the WAGR in late February this year.
Based on Theegala’s performance in the Genesis Open, there were some rankings that clearly needed to be updated. At the time, he was ranked 38th among college players by Golfweek and No. 151 in the WAGR.
If you are the 151st-best amateur in the world, you are not supposed to beat Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker and Ernie Els, among many others – or play even with a 42-time PGA Tour winner named Mickelson in the third round at Riviera, as Theegala did.
In the final round, Mickelson bested Theegala by two shots while showcasing his legendary short-game skills, holing out for two eagles and getting up and down several times thanks to his trademark flop shots.
“It was awesome just getting to play with Phil,” said Theegala, who also advanced to match play in all three U.S. Junior Amateurs played, from 2013-15. “I was trying to stay in my own game, but at the same time I was definitely watching and admiring his game. Some of the shots he hit were unbelievable, and he made them look casual. He’s just as good as everyone says; maybe even better … And the experience of playing with him, it’s something I’m never going to forget.”
Mickelson also was impressed with how Sahith handled himself during the final two rounds.
“He was great,” Mickelson said. “He played well, and I thought it was pretty cool the way his family and friends came out and supported him.”
There were chants of “Go, Waves, Go!” There were Pepperdine baseball caps everywhere. There were life-sized color photos of Sahith’s face being hoisted on signs. There were loud cheers, high-fives and fist-bumps in the gallery after every long drive, every birdie, every par save.
And there undoubtedly will be more “Theegala Mania” in August, when a teenager from Pepperdine will likely be among those favored to win the 117th U.S. Amateur Championship.
The goal is to land the most coveted prize in amateur golf – the U.S. Amateur Championship – and join many of golf’s greatest players, such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones, who have won the Havemeyer Trophy.
Riviera, the site of the 1948 U.S. Open, will host its first U.S. Amateur Championship. Bel-Air, which will serve as the stroke-play co-host course, held the 1976 U.S. Amateur, won by Bill Sander.
U.S. Amateur tickets are available online at www.usga.org/usam. Tickets are $20 (single-day grounds) and $75 for a weekly pass. Military personnel and students receive free admission with valid ID.