Fearless and one of a kind, Sahith Theegala the postseason key for rising Pepperdine

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Fearless and one of a kind, Sahith Theegala the postseason key for rising Pepperdine

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Fearless and one of a kind, Sahith Theegala the postseason key for rising Pepperdine

His coaches were worried: Sahith Theegala looked downright horrible as he prepared for his first collegiate tournament.

The California kid seemed to be totally out of whack as he warmed up for the Primland Collegiate Invitational on that September 2015 day.

There’s nerves, and then there was this: Theegala was topping shots and “skanking” irons on the range. Near the putting green, his chipping motion was, uhh, bizarre, as Theegala took long backswings and big divots as he half-chunked his shots onto the green. On the putting surface, he turned his flatstick upside-down and started hitting the ball with the toe.

Pepperdine assistant coach Armen Kirakossian saw it all and voiced his concern to head coach Michael Beard. At some point, though, Kirakossian had to intervene.

Sahith, what are you doing, man?

Theegala pointed out that his playing competitors were nearby. This was all part of the plan.

“He (tells Armen), ‘Coach, it’s OK. I’m just trying to psyche out these guys I’m playing with,’ ” Beard said.

The newbie finished T-12 at that opener. Welcome to the world of Sahith Theegala.

One of college golf’s top players is no longer a secret, but his methods of getting there deserve a full examination.

Theegala, a Pepperdine sophomore, rose to prominence first with an eye-opening run to the quarterfinals at last year’s U.S. Amateur and then a startling performance this February – when Theegala qualified for the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open through the Collegiate Showcase and proceeded to finish T-49 in his Tour debut. A maiden season that produced WCC Freshman of the Year honors and a No. 101 end-of-season ranking by Golfweek has been followed up by a co-WCC Player of the Year campaign that has Theegala up to 39th in the rankings.

And yet, Theegala remains easy to underestimate. The 19-year-old, of Chino Hills, Calif., knows he has an unorthodox swing – there have certainly been comments – and his approach toward golf doesn’t scream stability on the surface, either. Heck, his own teammate (and roommate of two years) Roy Cootes jokes that Theegala’s game is “a little janky.”

But Theegala pays the chatter no mind.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Theegala said.

Golf doesn’t have to be played one way: Theegala is proving that spectacularly. The sophomore is set to embark on his second postseason with the Waves, as Pepperdine begins its turn at the NCAA Stanford Regional on Monday at Stanford (Calif.) Golf Course.

If you’re looking for a good sleeper team for the NCAA Championship, Pepperdine isn’t a bad bet. The 35th-ranked Waves have been one of the most improved teams in college golf this spring, rating as the 16th-best squad in the country following the winter break while the autumn produced just a No. 71 marking. The team can also point to a stunning signature performance: a 16-shot victory, over No. 2 USC, at February’s Southwestern Invitational.

Pepperdine also plays its regional at a course it saw just last month for The Goodwin, a Stanford-hosted tournament, a familiarity that could do wonders. The Waves are the No. 5 seed in a regional where the top five teams advance to nationals, a place Pepperdine hasn’t reached since 2011.

Beard enters the tournament feeling his team is ready.

“They know what to expect, it’s now just a matter of how they execute,” Beard said.

His confidence starts with his star sophomore. Beard could’ve sought to stifle Theegala’s wild creativity, but part of the 19-year-old’s rise is precisely because the coach didn’t.

Theegala has been playing tournament golf since age 6 and does have a swing coach, albeit an occasional one, in Rick Hunter. That’s where the conventional part ends. While Beard has worked with Theegala on technical aspects in college, the former pro golfer doesn’t harp on that a ton – Theegala can quickly get bored by technical talk. Instead, Beard likes to see Theegala try imaginative shots on the range, often imploring his player to “show us a big slice, show us a big hook.”

In fact, Theegala’s show on the range may be one of the most fascinating in college golf.

That warm-up performance at Primland wasn’t a one-off, Theegala is legendary within the team for cutting it loose before a round. Per his teammates’ request, Theegala purposely thinned a wedge on the range prior to a round at the Genesis Open – to the bafflement of the pro hitting next to him.

Theegala’s most common gambit, though: the intentional shank. He pulls that one out on the range when he’s feeling in the mood, no matter who’s watching. His coaches and teammates get a kick out of it.

Hit an intentional shank in front of Brad Faxon at the U.S. Amateur? Check. How about shanking them on the range with Jon Rahm – only the World No. 1 amateur in his college days – next to him? You bet!

Theegala’s “all-time great shank” came in the fall of 2015 at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational. Cootes and Theegala were in the same lineup together for the first time, and there was going to be a show.

Theegala told his roommate to expect some intentional shanks on the range, and he didn’t disappoint. At one point in a MacKenzie practice session, Theegala – from the far left end – shanked one essentially straight across the range, with the ball rolling right in front of several players.

“We saw the guys at the end of the range just look back and they just were so confused, like, ‘Who is that?'” Cootes said. “And then Sahith goes out there and gets a top (25). It’s just classic.”

It’s not totally clear whether Theegala generally goes to this bag of tricks for a psychological advantage over his opponents – Theegala says he’s not trying to do that but teammates can see that as a factor – but it’s certainly a unique way to loosen up.

“I do it just to get the bad shots out of the way sort of,” Theegala said. “Just for fun, keep it light.”

That fearlessness to try anything is magnified in action.

Theegala’s showing at the U.S. Amateur included Round-of-32 and Round-of-16 victories against Sam Burns, the second-ranked player in college golf, and Joaquin Niemann (Golfweek’s No. 2 junior), and came about via epic putting performances.

But Theegala’s actually known more for his work around the greens. Take this short-game shot from the Southern Highlands Collegiate in March:

@peppgolf @srtheegala with a world class up and down for birdie on the difficult par 5 9th. #SHCollegiate ⛳️

A post shared by Southern Highlands Collegiate (@shcollegiate) on

And that may not have been his best shot around the green in that tournament on that hole. There was another day that Theegala hit one way right of that surface and had to flop one over a large tree and onto the green to get out of there with a chip and a two-putt.

He hit the near impossible shot to 40 feet. Perfection. The short-game magic is just constant.

“Every day there’s something that you think he’s never done anything like that,” Beard said. “It never ends with him.”

It extends beyond the short game, too. At last season’s Primland, Theegala had to hit a crazy 40-yard banana slice with a 3-hybrid from some 220 yards away in the right rough in order to find Primland Resort’s par-5 third green in two. He did so beautifully, knocking it to some 30 feet. Ho-hum two-putt birdie.

But that’s nothing. In October at the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate, he mesmerized his coach with one swing.

Theegala was in a fairway divot on a par 5 at Royal Oaks Country Club during the final round and could go for the green – but he’d have to hit a towering 30-yard fade to get it through a high gap in trees blocking his path and still curve the ball enough to find the green. Again, all of this from a divot.

Theegala stepped up, and executed to perfection, with the ball ending up some 45 feet from the cup for a two-putt birdie.

“That one was insane,” Beard said. “I’ve never seen a shot like that ever.”

That’s how it goes with Theegala. His strategy is to hit the shot he likes, and if the ball going offline could lead to trouble, he’s confident he can deal with the difficult situation.

“I get to that point now where I trust him so much, if he wants to do something, go ahead and do it,” Beard said. “I never tell him really no.”

That’s not to say Beard hasn’t intervened to help Theegala progress. As a freshman, Theegala saw his fearlessness lead to bad decision-making. On one occasion he tried to hit a 3-wood from an indentation right of a cart path, only to top the ball right into a bush in front of him. On another, he tried to hit a hybrid from weeds over water to a green 230 yards away and topped the ball right into the hazard, making triple-bogey 8 on the hole.

Beard’s strategy: Don’t try to tell Sahith, ‘No.’ Let him fail and see how stupid those shots were. That’s how he’ll learn.

Unsurprisingly, those bad decisions have declined sophomore year.

The head coach has been more hands on in different departments. Theegala may not be a range rat – he’s more inclined to chipping games – but he’s put the work in this season.

That wasn’t always the case freshman year. Theegala would show up for practice, but he would often do so without a purpose. So the coaches sat him down at the end of the season, and told him something needed to change.

If you want to be an elite player, you’re going to have to get more discipline. You’re going to have to really see yourself there.

The message resonated. Theegala has a plan at practice this season, and his tournament results have been highly consistent.

The work to improve always remains, though.

Theegala crept into the top 10 in Golfweek’s rankings after finishing T-18 or better (including his initial college win) in his first nine starts of the season. But his last three showings have been T-20, T-24, T-28. Not a huge drop-off, but one nonetheless.

Beard said the increased maturity Theegala had showed had slipped recently, as the sophomore got too emotional on the course in those events.

That issue seemed to hit most of the team, and after a disappointing runner-up showing at the WCC Championship, coaches had a meeting with players where they talked through the problem.

Theegala piped up at the meeting, professing a promise to change his attitude.

“I remember Sahith saying something like, ‘Guys, I’m sorry. I’m done acting like a punk,’ ” Beard said.

Beard feels Theegala has taken that to heart, with recent rounds once again showing a player that is thoroughly enjoying the game.

It’s worth noting, too, that Theegala’s last shot in competition was a chip-in birdie to close the WCC Championship.

Another example of Theegala magic.

If that’s back in full force, the sophomore’s and Pepperdine’s postseason will be something to behold.

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