(October 13, 2022) Every evening when he was a child, when it was time to leave his beloved golf course for the day, Sahith Theegala would burst into tears, begging begging to stay a little longer. He went on to win the Junior World Championships at the age of six. Now in his senior year at Pepperdine University, the Indian-origin golfer is already a star, winning four collegiate titles and the Australian Master of the Amateurs in January 2020. In that year, he also won the Haskins Award, the Ben Hogan Award and the Jack Nicklaus Award. He is the fifth player ever to win all the Player of the Year honours. In the American golf scene, dominated by whites, Sahith Theegala stands out, also because Indian-American sports stars don’t come around too often.
Theegala is an inspiration for more reasons than being a prodigy. The 24-year-old suffers from scoliosis, which is an abnormal curvature of the spine – one shoulder is visibly higher than the other. He works with his chiropractor and although it doesn’t cause him pain, it does account for a “pretty big bend to the right,” and an unorthodox swing. Despite this significant setback, the Global Indian went on to become one of the best golfers at Pepperdine University and is loved for his infectious enthusiasm, both on and off the greens.
Born and raised in LA, the son of Karuna and Muralidhar Theegala, Sahith maintains a strong connection to his Indian roots. He lives at home with his parents, for one. In February 2022, when he lost out to Scottie Scheffler at the very last moment, he won more fans than he could have hoped when, according to Golf Digest, he teared up and sobbed on his mother’s shoulder, as his dad stood by saying, “It’s okay.” Sahith’s father, Muralidhar, moved to the US from Hyderabad in 1987, to attend graduate school and the family still goes back to India as often as they can.
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The Indian-American golfer’s childhood was spent on municipal golf courses, which charge a modest $30 for a round. The courses aren’t well-maintained but it was all his middle-class family could afford – and they were keen to nurture their son’s talent. “My dad, even though he never plays golf, he’s the one that taught me the game pretty much,” he told PGATOUR.com.
“We weren’t in the greatest financial situation when I was a kid and we had no experience with sports at all, so my father spearheaded the whole mission to college and professional golf… He put everything that he could into me.” Despite their financial constraints, Theegala’s parents spent their savings on buying him equipment, paying course fees, for a trainer, travel costs and the litany of expenses that came with his passion.
Determined not to let his scoliosis stand in his way, Theegala would spend days out on dusty golf courses, adapting “his putting stroke by tilting his head to the right so he could see the appropriate line from the gall to hole,” according to the New York Times.
In 2015, Theegala graduated with honours from high school in California and had won a number of golf awards by that time. “I’d say I was a pretty good golfer,” he said, in the interview with PGATOUR.com. He made it to Pepperdine University in California, which is ranked in the top 10 in men’s golf among US universitites. “At Pepperdine, I went from average to slightly good to what I felt like was ready to be a decent professional golfer.”
The 24-year-old earned countless new fans this week. pic.twitter.com/tq5Q2YsFCy
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 13, 2022
His winning streak in 2019 came to an abrupt pause after a wrist injury. He bounced back, though, making his professional debut in June 2020, somewhat unconventionally. Theegala might not have imagined starting out with the Outlaw Tour but gave a stellar performance nonetheless. The pandemic dealt a heavy blow, when the Pepperdine campus closed and Theegala had to return home. Although that season ended prematurely, Sahith’s team ranked first in the country.
His family is always in the stands as he plays, cheering him on. And his fan base is always growing. “I’m an introvert by nature,” he told NYT. “You hear about the best performers in the world – singers and dancers – who are really big introverts. But it’s different when you get on the stage. When I’m in the act of playing golf, I don’t even think about people watching.”
Theegala is, however, always aware of being an Indian American, of the fact that it means he is viewed differently by default. He’s also playing a sport that has never really welcomed non-white players. “I’m definitely proud of my Indian heritage and I hope I’m inspiring other Indian Americans and people in India to know they can compete in sports,” he says. “It’s obviously not the main purpose of being out there but it’s an ancillary effect of what we’re doing and I’m all for it.”
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