Sahith Theegala, his first round on Thursday suspended due to darkness, went back to the house, ordered Thai and watched basketball. He was leading the WM Phoenix Open by a shot, but he’s also a hoops head. A Cali kid, the Lakers are his team.
How much so? He has a story. It’s his senior year at Pepperdine, and the Waves are practicing for a home tournament, when he and the rest of the basketball world came to a stop in late January of 2020. From here, we’ll let Theegala tell it.
“Like millions of other people, Kobe was my sports idol,” Theegala told GOLF.com in a spring of 2020 interview. “I grew up watching Kobe and the Lakers with my dad. The two sports we watched were golf and basketball, and I’ve been a Lakers fan since I can remember. I would cry when the Lakers would lose or Kobe would have a bad game when I was young.
“I found out that he crashed at the beginning of our practice round for our home tournament, and the craziest part was, where he crashed was in Calabasas, and that’s where my apartment is. I literally live a mile from where he crashed. I was in disbelief. I could hardly play the practice round. I went back to my apartment, I had a few jerseys and a pair of Kobes that I’ve had for a while. I just grabbed those and brought them with me back to the hotel room, and I figured I’ve been a big Kobe fan, regardless of how I’m playing, I’m going to try to honor him the last day. Depending on what the circumstances were, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do the last day. I just knew I was going to wear it while playing — I don’t know if it was going to be hole eight because I had an eight jersey, or if I was just going to wear it during the last round.
“I ended up being in the lead so I didn’t want it to affect me that much, and I was still 100 percent going to do it on the last hole. It just so happened that I had a one-shot lead. It literally couldn’t have worked out better. I just hit my second shot on 18, and right after I hit it, I flipped on the jersey, walked up to the green and hit both my putts in it. And after I made the second putt, obviously I gave a little tap to the jersey to pay my respects to Kobe. I was just really happy to do that, to pay my respects to the guy who I’ve idolized pretty much for my whole career.”
Theegala, after Friday at the Phoenix, continues to lead after a scorching, eight-birdie, one-bogey 64, the day’s low round. Immediately trailing him are a golf all-star team: Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. This weekend, they’ll be playing in front of fans who are maybe best described this way: Talor Gooch was asked Friday the best costume he’s seen at TPC Scottsdale. “The best outfit that I’ve seen, it was actually not from this year, it was two years ago maybe, and actually didn’t see it on 16, but I saw them, it was a group running to 16 at 6 a.m., and it was a bunch of bananas and then a gorilla,” Gooch said. “So that was the best, the gorilla chasing the bananas.”
With that all in mind, and the knowledge that Theegala is a 24-year-old rook on Tour who still lives at home with Mom and Dad, you’re right to wonder how he’ll hold up with Brooksie, Patty Ice, an Olympic gold medalist, bananas and a monkey hounding him. But know that not every dude can step up to an 18th green with a one-shot lead, toss a jersey over his head and win a tournament, days after your hero dies, minutes from where you live. That’s moxie. If you want to say that’s a bit like the player he was honoring, go for it.
And there’s this. Mamba himself might be proud of this answer. Afterward, Theegala was asked about the finish to his first round on Friday morning, when he had played two holes and bogeyed both.
To put it in basketball parlance, he just kept shooting.
“Yeah, I wasn’t too upset about the way it started,” Theegala said. “Like I had a 15-footer to start the day, so I was like, OK, I just put a good roll on it and see what happens. I put a good roll, just missed.
“And the next tee shot, I put it under the lip of the fairway bunker, and I’m like, OK, I can’t do much about that, right? And I knew if I kept putting the ball in the fairway, I’m going to have scoring opportunities.”