Pepperdine's Sahith Theegala survives thrilling first-round U.S. Amateur match

Pepperdine's Sahith Theegala survives thrilling first-round U.S. Amateur match

Amateur

Pepperdine's Sahith Theegala survives thrilling first-round U.S. Amateur match

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Even as a quarterfinalist in last year’s U.S. Amateur, Sahith Theegala didn’t emerge as a nationally-recognized talent until he qualified for the 2017 Genesis Open. Having never played Riviera until one day before qualifying, Theegala made the cut, was paired with Phil Mickelson and finished an admirable T-49.  

The Pepperdine junior-to-be also qualified for the 2017 U.S. Open, where he missed the cut but enjoyed a late evening practice round with the last two national champions, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.

Yet the highlight of his week – and maybe his year – was playing before family and friends in a thrilling first round U.S. Amateur match against Gavin Hall. One down in a fantastic duel with the recent Texas grad, Theegala laid up aggressively and loved the prospects of a relatively short, 65-yard wedge shot to put pressure on the relentlessly-steady Hall. A rare swing thought caused Theegala to flinch, setting up a 25-footer to Hall’s downhill 12-footer for birdie. 

“Right as I took it back, for some reason, I never think this on chip shots, I was like, ‘Whoa, that is way too far back,’” Theegala said. “It was a pretty basic shot, and to do that was really disappointing. Then he hit his bunker shot up and I was like, ‘All right. There is no other thing here. I’ve got to make this or he’s got a good chance at making his.’”

Theegala sank the 25-footer for birdie and matched the moment with a big reaction.

“All my emotion came out there for sure,” he said. “After that fist pump on 17, how loud they got, I mean, that was awesome. That basically made my week right there.”

The energy switch in what was a hard-fought match helped Theegala rip a 320-yard drive at the famous par-4 18th. He then sprinted to use the restroom and did not know Hall hit his tee ball into the shrubbery while Theegala was using the facilities. The Pittsford, New York native was lucky to find his ball and even more fortunate to have a Fox television stand in his way. He was granted relief by match referee Grover Walker as allowed under the rules, so Hall went from knee-high rough to a sidehill stance in more modest 2-inch kikuyu.

“I couldn’t even believe what was happening there,” Theegala said. “I mean, that’s the rules of golf, though.”

Still, Theegala had a chance to win the match outright with just his 50-degree wedge left from 141 yards into the famous amphitheater green, but he overvalued his adrenaline and came up well short, failing to get up and down as Hall also made bogey to force a sudden-death playoff.

After a brief pause at Riviera’s elevated first tee, Theegala used hyrbrid to drive near the barranca while Hall used iron and faced a significant distance disadvantage. Theegala, who birdied the recently converted par 4 earlier in the day, hit an 8-iron from 181 yards to 12 feet and two-putted as Hall failed to get up and down from the green side bunker.

With his combination of length and short game prowess, Theegala will be a tough opponent going forward. His knowledge of kikuyu grass as a local who grew up playing the wiry weed helps.

“I think people, especially coming from the east coast, they don’t play on kikuyu very much at all. I grew up on public courses, so I feel super comfortable chipping and hitting shots out of the rough here.” 

Theegala needs a strong U.S. Amateur week to have any shot at making the U.S. Walker Cup team. Besides his play at Riviera in February and his U.S. Open qualification, Theegala won the Sahalee Players Championship in July. But after sinking a clutch putt in front of family and friends, he’s already enjoyed another epic highlight in what has been a magical year.

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