Golfer's Pro Journey Start With a Burst Bubble

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Sahith Theegala hardly remembered the details, but his father did.

Long before he was a three-time All-American golfer with Pepperdine and long before making Theegala his professional PGA Tour debut last week at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., A 10-year-old golfer from public course trying to figure out fast greens. So his father, Muralidhar, born in Hyderabad, India, took him to a training ground at a local private country club he knew near their suburban Los Angeles home. Basically, a man came up to them and gave a clear message about race in golf.

“Instead of saying, & # 39; Who are you? & # 39 ;, he just said: & # 39; You shouldn't be here & # 39; He just assumed that because of the color of our skin, & # 39; Muralidhar said.

The incident did not hinder the development of Theegala to become the best male collegiate golfer in the country, an award he earned for his time this season. The No. 1 ranked Pepperdine team had undermined hopes of the national championship in March due to the corona virus outbreak.

Theegala, 22, who is Indian-American, now faces the biggest challenge of any amateur's path and turns pro, as one of the most non-white players in a traditionally conservative sport. He also does that at one of the most tumultuous times in history, as the limited environment of the PGA Tour has been infiltrated by positive tests for the coronavirus among golfers and their caddies.

Standing 6-foot-3, with a lazy and unorthodox swing and a sublime short game, Theegala will make the second PGA Tour start of his career this week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, hoping that his professional future can have a special impact.

"In light of what is going on, I am proud of who I am and what I add to the golf community in terms of diversity," said Theegala. "We all end up trying to do the same in pro golf and that makes a successful career. Hopefully there is some inspiration behind that for people who look at me and realize you don't have to be the stereotypical white golfer.

It has never been easy for racial minorities to rise to the top of professional golf, from Lee Elder breaking the color barrier at The Masters in 1975 – the year Tiger Woods was born – to Harold Varner III playing racial tackles inequality as he battled for the early lead at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth last month as protests began to seize American cities after George Floyd's death in police custody.

Theegala was born in Fullerton, California, eight months after Woods won his first professional major championship at the 1997 Masters, and moved to Chino Hills outside Los Angeles when he was about 2 years old. Woods was expected to spark an influx of golfers from a more diverse background, whether recreational players or professionals, but 23 years later, Woods and Varner are the only African American golfers to be in the top 200.

"I have always believed that my boy is something special," Muralidhar Theegala said. "Hopefully everything will be fine, and by the grace of God he will do great. But I believe he was born to do something great. & # 39;

Muralidhar made it a point at least every two years to return the family to India, where his parents still live. In 2001, Karuna, his wife and Sahith's mother, started a battle with thyroid cancer, so her mother, Vijaya Laxmi, came to the United States to help with the children. Since then, Laxmi has spent six months with them every year in California and six months back in India. Theegala balances his connection to India with a nonchalance in Southern California: he's warm and gentle, if not downright wacky.

"I am absolutely very proud of my background and my Indian heritage," said Theegala. "But when I'm around my friends and other golfers, I don't think about that."

Theegala grew up in a family that emphasized academics and was fascinated by American sports. When Sahith was not yet 2 years old, Muralidhar supported the toddler on his knee to watch Lakers games on television. When Muralidhar cheered, Sahith got excited. And when Sahith grew old enough to understand what was going on, he cried when the Lakers lost.

Theegala was almost crying again in January when he finished a college win at the Southwestern Invitational with a Kobe Bryant. sweater over his collared shirt, two days after Bryant's deadly helicopter crash. It was an unusual sight at the end of a golf tournament, but not as unusual as what Theegala has often done for them.

During the first tournament for which he qualified as a freshman in college, Theegala had warmed up terribly on the driving range, hit by nerves. So he decided to shake them off by deliberately hitting even worse shots. Shanks zipped through competitors trying to prepare, and patches of grass and dirt barely came out of its shadow. Full-swing flop shots of a foot from the chipping green frightened people about their safety. Pepperdine Coach Michael Beard was called out of the clubhouse to see what his young star was doing, and was shocked to see Theegala get to the first tee, grab a handful of irons and swing left-handed.

But when it was his time to turn off, right-handed Theegala struck a beautiful left-to-right blur in the narrow gap between a rock and a gorge. He then hit a 6-iron on the par-5 green and two-putt for birdie to start his collegiate career.

"I looked at my assistant as: & # 39; He'll make it & # 39 ;," Beard said with a laugh. & # 39; To me, that kind of sums it up. He is comfortable with who he is. "

When Beard first started recruiting Theegala, he did so both for the prodigy's resume and for his unconventional approach. Theegala had won the first tournament in which he played, the prestigious Junior Worlds in San Diego, and won it again at the ages of 8 and 10. He rose in age groups and held his own against future PGA Tour professionals such as Xander Schauffele and Beau Hossler.

But then Beard for the first time, Theegala also pushed maces into the wrong slots in his bag, wore socks that were pulled up mid-calf and the shirt pulled slightly loose. (Theegala always needed fashion help during his college career.) not a member of a private club and Sahith usually played on a public course called El Prado.

"It is literally a goat track. It's awful, & # 39; said Beard, adding that Theegala would play a lot of tournaments to practice on better courses.

Before making his professional debut in a small Outlaw Tour event in early June, Theegala drove with his junior golf friend and roommate Roy Cootes for four years in Pepperdine, Arizona, where they lived in a motel room of Stayed $ 80 a night. Theegala shot 62 in his first round as a pro before finishing in a tie for third place, with a profit of around $ 1,000 after the entry fee and expense.

It was all trying to keep his game sharp, a very different process from most rising stars in the game, often overloaded with instructions and too dependent on technology to help improve.

"I asked him how his short game is, and he actually said that nothing is based on mechanics," said Cootes. "He just looks at the shot and tries to figure out the best situation to get it into the hole. He doesn't care how to swing or what to do to get the ball into the hole. It's so refreshing. It's unbelievable. "

But Theegala's match was not as sharp as he had hoped during his PGA Tour debut at the Travelers Championship last weekend, as he even shot par over two rounds and the cut missed. He called it & # 39; a great learning experience & # 39; which did not change his lofty expectations in the future.

& # 39; I don't want to sound headstrong or anything, but I'm playing to win, & # 39; said Theegala. "It's not that I'm just playing to make the cut or something. If you're not trying to win, what are you doing?"

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