Napa (USA): Sahith Theegala cemented his stature as one of golf’s rising stars by claiming his maiden PGA TOUR triumph at the Fortinet Championship on Sunday and hopes his breakthrough will inspire young Indian athletes to shoot for the stars.
The 25-year-old Theegala, who is of Indian heritage, fired a final round of 4-under 68 at Silverado Resort in Napa, California to win by two strokes over Korea’s S.H. Kim as he joined fellow Indian-American Akshay Bhatia in the winner’s club following the latter’s triumph at the Barracuda Championship in July.
“It means a lot to me because a lot of my family’s still back in India,” said Theegala, who posted 12 top-10 finishes before his career-first victory on the world’s elite circuit.
“I’m very proud of my Indian heritage. I just love seeing other Indians sort of rise to the occasion in sports. Neeraj (Chopra) won a couple of gold medals; I think it was the first gold medal for India in track and field in the Olympics. That’s huge for the country.
“I was really lucky to play with Shubhankar (Sharma) in a practice round and meet his whole team and his dad and his coach (at The Open Championship). He had a great showing there, I was pulling for him so hard. I think he finished seventh. He’s been having a nice little resurgent season.
“Anirban (Lahiri) texts me all the time and he’s obviously been great for the Indian game, too. Obviously with Akshay (Bhatia) winning and Aaron Rai finishing second at the BMW (PGA Championship in Wentworth on Sunday), so a lot of really cool role models to look up to for the Indian people.”
Theegala’s parents, Muralidhar and Karuna, emigrated to the U.S. during the 1980s where Sahith was born. He eventually became hooked on golf through his parent’s encouragement and support and their mantra was to simply enjoy playing sport before Sahith developed into a fine amateur golfer where he was a three-time All-American at Pepperdine University.
In his rookie season on the PGA TOUR last year, Theegala sensationally made it all the way to the FedExCup Playoffs Finale, the TOUR Championship, limited to the top-30 players, but agonizingly missed the showpiece event by one rung in the Playoffs last month. He hopes his breakthrough on Sunday will put more spotlight on Indian athletes.
“And hopefully, we’re breaking some stereotypes about athleticism and competing in sport and all that. It means a lot to me, for sure. There are a lot of things I do in daily life that stem from my culture and my heritage. My parents are the first ones from their family to be in the States. Yeah, means a lot, and I think hopefully this is the start of something really good for Indian sports,” said Theegala.
He paid tribute to his parents for their encouragement and support through the years while living in California.
“My dad’s the reason I’m here today. He introduced me to all sports, most specifically basketball and golf. Just loved watching it on TV with him. All he knew when he came from India was academics. He and my mom did such a good job of just kind of learning how to almost hybrid parent between this Indian culture and American culture and let me play sports, let me spend a lot of time on sports,” said Theegala.
“Put me in basketball club, and my mom drove me to so many practices when my dad was still at work. Just the combined efforts of them to kind of understand that this was my dream and my passion, and then for it to become their dream and their passion, especially my dad.
“My dad, he just loves sports. He’s a competitor, too, although he’s never really, really played sports. I think at first it was hard for maybe some of my family and even friends to understand why I was trying to chase playing professional golf. Seems like kind of a pipe dream, but my dad had my back the whole time. He just believed in me from the start and knew this could be a thing.”
“It’s tough not to get emotional just thinking about everything he’s done. He’s always had my back, even through my wrist surgery in 2018 and 2019 thinking I might never play again, He just has my back and keeps on pushing me,” he said.
“He also did such a good job of — he was really hard on me, but also one of my best friends. Always told me to have fun, the main thing was to just enjoy it because if you don’t enjoy it, there’s no purpose in doing it, life’s too short,” said Theegala.