Before abrupt ending, Sahith Theegala led Pepperdine to the top of college golf
The college-golf careers of many seniors around the country came to a sudden end on March 12 when the NCAA decided to cancel all remaining athletics because of the COVID-19 pandemic. GolfChannel.com will highlight some of these seniors and their stories.
When Michael Beard recruited Sahith Theegala to Pepperdine, he knew in his gut that he had landed a special player, a potential program-changer, a future star.
Some of Beard’s coaching peers, though, didn’t see the talented-yet-unconventional Theegala through the same crystal ball. The skepticism often made its way to Beard: You’re not going to look at that swing for four years, are you?
Beard wishes now he could watch it for four hundred.
When the NCAA canceled the remainder of the college golf season on March 12 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it not only signaled the end to a potential national-title run by the Waves, who earlier this year had ascended to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in program history, but also the end of Theegala’s decorative collegiate career.
“It just sucks,” Theegala said. “It was nice that we ended up on top, but I know for me and the other seniors, to not get a chance to compete at nationals and live the dream of making it to match play and winning it all, not even having a shot at that, it still hurts.”
While the NCAA also announced preliminary plans for all student-athletes – seniors included – who participated in spring sports this year to be granted an extra year of eligibility, the odds remain slim that Theegala, a redshirt senior, will return for a sixth year.
“As much as I would love to come back and compete for a national championship,” Theegala said, “I do think I’m ready [to turn pro].”
Theegala bows out of the collegiate game as a likely three-time All-American and with several program records, including career scoring average (70.61), rounds of par or better (74) and wins (4). He is the third-ranked amateur in the world and finished this abbreviated season as Golfstat’s top-ranked individual.
Not bad for a tall, lanky recruit with a goofy swing.
“I’m not saying that I knew it, I’m not saying that at all,” Beard said, “but I knew there was something special about him.”
The first time Beard watched Theegala play, shortly before getting the job at Pepperdine in late 2012, he could see the high-school freshman from Chino Hills had game, lots of it. One doesn’t just win three Junior World Championships before the age of 11 without possessing budding talent. Even at a young age, Theegala had all the ability – to go crazy low, to pull off seemingly impossible shots, to pile up trophies.
But that isn’t what Beard remembers most. No, it was the long socks and the disorganized golf bag.
“He had his driver and woods where the wedges were supposed to go, and his wedges and putter where the woods were supposed to go,” Beard said.
Theegala explained: “I never really cared to switch them until I realized it was making the clubheads clink together more.”
It’s really no surprise that Theegala ended up committing to Pepperdine, preferring the small-school vibe over some of the bigger West Coast names such as Oregon, USC and Washington. Playing at a mid-major, albeit in glamorous Malibu, and staying close to home was more Theegala’s speed. Not that he was one of the Class of 2015’s blue-chips, but he was close – a top-20 kid in the AJGA rankings – and he didn’t feel the need to take his talents to South Beach, or whatever the college-golf equivalent of that is.
“He’s always been his own guy,” Beard said, “comfortable doing his own thing.”
Sometimes a little too comfortable. Theegala developed a reputation in college for intentionally hitting high-handicap shots before tournaments – shanks, tops, chunks, slices, hooks, you name it – all in an effort to throw off his opponents. Before his first college event in the fall of 2015, Theegala alarmed his coaches while striking putts on the practice green … with the toe of his overturned putter. Later that season, Theegala was purposely topping 3-woods on the range, prompting an opposing coach to run up to Beard and break the news: I feel bad for your guy, he can’t seem to hit the ball.
The most memorable miss-hit came just two events into that first semester. The range was packed that morning before a shotgun start at the Meadow Club, and Theegala found himself warming up on the far-left side, just a few spots over from Arizona State star Jon Rahm. Theegala grabbed an iron, turned to his teammates and whispered to them, “Watch this.”
“It was the best shank I’ve ever hit,” Theegala said. “It went 90 degrees right across the range, right past Rahm. He gave me this look. I tried not to look up to make it look like it was an accident, like, oh man, I can’t believe I did that.”
Eventually, Theegala’s play on the course overshadowed his pre-round antics. He became West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year and followed that up with a sophomore campaign in 2016-17 that included his first win, just one finish outside the top 25, a made cut at the Genesis Open (he also qualified for the U.S Open that summer at Erin Hills) and helping the Waves to their first NCAA Championship appearance since 2011. (Theegala tied for 19th at Rich Harvest Farms in what would be his only trip to nationals.)
As a junior, Theegala put together six top-10s, including a school-record 16-shot victory at the Waves Challenge, Pepperdine’s home event at Saticoy Country Club. Not only did Theegala play the first round that week with a member’s putter after misplacing his own, but he also completed 54 holes with two drivers and no 4-iron in the bag because his second driver, which he had just been fit for, produced a consistent low-spin draw that came in handy in the wind.
“You could say I played really well that week,” Theegala said.
At the same time, though, Theegala’s left wrist was taking a pounding. Theegala fought the pain until the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, where he shot 79-78. An MRI revealed a TFCC tear and tendon damage in the wrist. He took two months off and tried hitting balls again. Still pain.
Theegala had surgery in January 2019 and missed 10 months, including the entirety of what was supposed to be his senior year. The long layoff, however, matured Theegala, giving him better perspective, making him a better teammate. Despite not being able to play, he insisted on traveling with the team to regionals and nationals that year.
“It’s hard to not always make it about you,” Beard said, “and he just valued the team and his teammates so much.”
Theegala considers the injury a “blessing in disguise.” While he tightened up his mighty lash of a swing with a motion that was easier on his body and nabbed a pair of impressive amateur wins last year at the SCGA Amateur and Australian Master of the Amateurs, he also afforded himself an opportunity to be part of arguably the deepest team in the country this season and play alongside much ballyhooed freshman William Mouw.
Behind Theegala and Mouw, Pepperdine was tabbed as a preseason favorite and delivered, winning three times and placing second twice more. The Waves did it all with a different lineup each time. Nine players played at least five events. Ten notched at least one top-10 finish. The competition at home was so stout that seniors Joshua McCarthy and Clay Feagler, who combined for 90 starts during their four-year careers, didn’t qualify for at least two tournaments.
“At certain times, there was more pressure in qualifying than the actual tournament,” McCarthy said.
Theegala played in every event, so did Mouw, and when awards are handed out later this spring, it’s likely that they will sweep the major awards. Mouw has tough competition in Florida’s Ricky Castillo for the Phil Mickelson Award, given to the nation’s top freshman, but Theegala should be the clear favorite to nab the Nicklaus and Haskins awards as the player of the year (Update: Theegala won the Haskins on May 8). He won twice, including the Waves’ home event, the Southwestern Invitational at North Ranch Country Club, just days after his childhood hero, Kobe Bryant, died in a helicopter crash less than a mile from Theegala’s apartment.
Theegala put on Bryant’s jersey for the final two putts and followed that performance with a truly Mamba-like run – top-6s in three of the spring’s toughest events, the Amer Ari, Prestige and Southern Highlands.
“He had really taken off,” Beard said. The whole squad had.
“There were so many stars that seemed to align perfectly for this year to be our year,” Theegala said. “It certainly was shaping up that way. We could feel it from the start.”
Less than two months after his victory at North Ranch, Theegala was sitting in his car in the parking lot at the Westlake Village club when his phone lit up. Theegala had been following along that morning as several conferences postponed events because of coronavirus concerns, but he wasn’t expecting this alert: NCAA cancels men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments amid coronavirus fears.
He clicked the link. All spring sports, too, including golf. Damn.
Theegala, in a state of shock, walked around the clubhouse to the practice green, where his coaches and teammates were gathered, their heads buried in their phones. A dreary, drizzly morning quickly turned to a downpour, so the team retreated to the grill room. Other than ESPN playing on a television, the room remained silent for a good half hour as players tried to process the news.
Their promising season? “Boom, just over, instantly,” Theegala said.
“I guess life throws unexpected curveballs at you, and this is a big one,” Feagler added. “It sucks, you do all this work and you don’t even get a shot to see what could’ve been.”
Depending on logistics, Feagler and McCarthy, who were set to join Theegala at Mackenzie Tour Q-School at the end of the month, have desires to return to school in the fall and take one last crack at Pepperdine’s first NCAA title since 1997. Both will earn Bachelor’s degrees in communications later this spring.
“Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty, like if I were to go pro now, what would that even look like, when’s golf even going to be played?” McCarthy said. “I think a lot of that will drive people to go back, and I would certainly would like to.”
Added Feagler: “I was going to go play Q-School and see what happens, but now, I really don’t even know. Everything is up in the air.”
But Theegala knows, barring something crazy, that he’s done. He is set to graduate with a degree in sports administration and instead of pursuing his MBA, he’ll chase whatever pro starts he can get when – and if – golf resumes later this year.
“But if there’s nothing to play this year…” Theegala began, but no, he’s made up his mind, this is it.
“I’ll be pumped to see what the guys do next year without me.”
The future is still bright for the Waves, thanks in large part to Theegala. “He was the first piece to the puzzle,” McCarthy said. The year before Theegala arrived on campus, Pepperdine finished the season ranked barely inside the top 80. By the end of Theegala’s freshman year, the Waves were almost a top-40 team. Now, they will sit atop college golf for the foreseeable future, and when balls are teed up again there’s no question the road to Grayhawk will run through Malibu.
Pepperdine just won’t be getting there in Theegala’s Volkswagen Passat, trap music blaring from its speakers.
“Is Pepperdine golf where it is right now without Sahith? 100 percent, absolutely not,” Beard said. “None of this happens without him. He has been instrumental in setting the tone for our program these last few years. … It’s going to be hard to replace Sahith. I’m not even going to try.”
Beard’s prophecy came true, and boy, was it fun to watch.