SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Seemingly only Mother Nature could slow Sahith Theegala’s assault on par during the first round of the WM Phoenix Open.
The 24-year-old rookie out of Pepperdine University was 7-under through his first 16 holes at TPC Scottsdale and leading the tournament when play was suspended due to darkness at 6:23 pm, with eight players still on the course. Theegala will be facing a 16-foot par putt when play resumes Friday morning.
“I got a little chippy at the end, I started hitting my driver a little squirrely at the end, so this is a welcome stop, honestly,” he said. “I was kind of losing some momentum there.”
Less than two weeks ago, after completing his final round at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, Theegala was surprised with one of five sponsor exemptions into the WM Phoenix Open field.
“Wow, that’s awesome. Thanks for giving me this chance. We’ll try to keep it rolling, ”he said in a moment captured on video and spread via social media. “That’s so cool. Are you kidding me? I can not thank these guys enough for giving me another opportunity to do what I love. ”
Theegala knows all too well what a difference a sponsor invite can mean to his fledgling career. He parlayed a late-season sponsor invite into the Barracuda Championship in August into a T-34 finish that lifted him just inside the top 200 of the FedEx Cup standings and qualified for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where he earned one of the 25 PGA Tour cards that were up for grabs. Asked what he would have been doing this week if not for the sponsor invite bestowed upon him, he said, “Rest… I’d be doing absolutely nothing.”
“It feels like a free roll because I should not be here. I think maybe two guys from the Korn Ferry category got in as alternates, so I was not even on planning on being here, ”Theegala added. “So the fact that I’m here, I think we had a pretty good mindset of just trying to enjoy the week as much as possible and it’s been good so far.”
Much has been expected of Theegala after a stellar college career. He reached as high as No. 3 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and became just the fifth golfer to sweep the Ben Hogan Award, Haskins Award and Jack Nicklaus Award given to college golf’s top player.
His season began with great promise after Theegala shot 64 to grab the opening round lead of the Sanderson Farms Championship, his second start of the year, and stayed in front until shooting a final-round 71. He dropped to a share of eighth place, his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour.
“It was really great for me, knowing that when I’m playing near the top of my game I’m able to compete,” he said. “That was the biggest takeaway I had from that week.”
Theegala, who has made eight cuts in his first 10 events and enters the week ranked 88th in the FedEx Cup standings, is trying to become the first sponsor invite to win on the PGA Tour since Martin Laird at the 2020 Shriners Open. On Thursday, Theegala torched his first nine holes, the back side, in 31. He started by holing a 17-foot birdie putt and then strung together four birdies in a row beginning at No. 13. In all, Theegala birdied the three par 5’s and capped off his birdie binge with a 30-foot birdie at four.
He’s now the solo leader thru 13 holes. pic.twitter.com/eHhcijOShY
– PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 11, 2022
Korea’s KH Lee is the clubhouse leader after posting 6-under 65. Last year, he finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka here and he picked up where he left off by rolling in three birdies and an eagle on the front nine.
“Just very comfortable here,” said Lee, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson last year for his lone victory on another TPC layout, at TPC Craig Ranch. “Everything better.”
But to improve upon his showing last year and hoist the trophy on Sunday, Lee may have to outduel Koepka, the former World No. 1, who used the word “embarrassing” to describe the fact that he entered the week ranked No. 20 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“I mean, that’s embarrassing to be 20th, I feel like,” said Koepka, who has been winless since last year’s WM Phoenix Open. “A lot of it has to do with injury, man. I’ve been hurt, on the sidelines, not playing, playing through injury, you can not compete with guys out here. It’s nice to be somewhat healthy and get out here and I mean I’m not too worried about it, it will bounce back up. ”
There was nothing embarrassing about Koepka’s play in the opening round at TPC Scottsdale as he carded six birdies and a lone bogey to shoot 5-under 66. He’s tied for third with Adam Hadwin, Harry Higgs and Scott Stallings (through 17).
Koepka, a two-time champion in Phoenix, has missed the cut in three of his last four official PGA Tour starts and has not recorded a top-10 since the British Open in July. But the WM Phoenix Open is a tournament that sounds and feels a lot like a major to Koepka and he thrives in that environment.
“I love when people get rowdy.” Koepka said. “They’re cheering you when you hit it tight, and they’re booing you when you hit it bad. It almost feels like a real sport, like football, basketball, things like that, soccer. ”
But the madness at the par-3 16th is not for everyone.
“I’m glad it’s one week a year,” said Charley Hoffman. “I think if it was every week it might be a little intense, but definitely one week a year this is a lot of fun and I embrace it.”
Hoffman is part of a pack at 4-under 67 that is loaded with big-name talent, including World No. 1 Jon Rahm, Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele, reigning FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay, and former major winners Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson. Rahm, a former Arizona State standout and local resident, said winning his hometown event would be extra special.
“I’ve been able to win the Spanish Open twice and I carry that with a lot of honor. And this is kind of essentially home away from home, right? ” Rahm said. “So, it means a lot, it’s a tournament that is always marked on the calendar early on. And I’ve been somewhat close to winning, but never really had a chance, so I’m hoping I can get that done, because it’s a tournament I really like and definitely one that I would love to win. ”