Sahith Theegala thrills crowds at Napa

Varsha Nekkanti first met Sahith Theegala as a young girl on a family vacation to the Southern California amusement parks. Their fathers attended college together in India before immigrating to California, and the Nekkantis detoured to Chino Hills for dinner at the Theegala household.

Varsha remembers Sahith’s impressive trophy display from junior golf tournaments. Muralidhar Theegala asked if Varsha had played. She hadn’t. The father encouraged the Nekkantis to buy her a set of clubs, and perhaps she too could start winning trophies upon returning to San Jose.

On Sunday in Napa, more than a decade after that family gathering, Nekkanti and her parents posed for photographs with the Theegalas on the 18th green, having witnessed Sahith capture his maiden PGA Tour victory and the fifth PGA Tour victory for a golfer of Indian heritage.

A man raises a trophy overhead as people applaud
Sahith Theegala raises the Fortinet Trophy after winning his first PGA tournament (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

A non-traditional path for Indian-Americans

“It’s really motivating,” said Nekkanti, who eventually got her own golf clubs. “The path to get there is so hard. We know that as athletes. It takes a lot of effort. To see someone believe in themselves in a non-traditional career path for a lot of Indians our age is really inspiring.”

A family at a golf tournament
Varsha Nekkanti and her family watching Sahith Theegala at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

Nekkanti enjoyed an impressive junior career that includes an outstanding participant award with First Tee of Silicon Valley and all-conference accolades at Notre Dame High School in San Jose. She now studies engineering at UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, Theegala has captivated the golf world through his aggressive shotmaking and some heartbreaking finishes, and through parents Muralidhar and Karuna who are devoted to seeing their son pursue greatness.

After his victory, Theegala stood outside the 18th-hole grandstands, deciding who security guards should allow behind the ropes. He pointed to face after face from his childhood. “She can come in. He’s in. She’s in …” In all, about 40 family and friends flooded the 18th green.

Family and friends celebrate Sahith Theegala’s victory at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

Breaking stereotypes

“It doesn’t feel real,” said Theegala, with parents by his side at Silverado Resort and Country Club. “I had so many family and friends cheering me on, and just the support I have is mind-blowing. I have gone to bed at night these last few days and I’m like, I can’t believe how many people are cheering for me and rooting for me.

“I’m very proud of my Indian heritage,” Theegala added. “I just love seeing other Indians sort of rise to the occasion in sports. Hopefully, we’re breaking some stereotypes about athleticism and competing in sports and all that. … There’s a lot of things I do in daily life where that stems from my culture and my heritage. My parents are the first ones from their family to be in the States. I think hopefully this is the start of something really good for Indian sports.”

A golfer strides across the green
I think hopefully this is the start of something really good for Indian sports” Sahith Theegala at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

A sports junkie

Like most civilians in India, Muralidhar Theegala and Ramki Nekkanti never played golf before attending Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) together and later immigrating to America. With about one-third of India’s courses in army cantonments, most professional Indian golfers come from military families. The nation of about 1.4 billion has about one course for every five million residents. The United States, by comparison, has about one course per 22,000 residents.

Settling in Chino Hills, Muralidhar became a sports junkie. His eldest son followed suit, captivated by Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour. “One day I asked if he wanted to hit some balls,” Muralidhar recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’ ”

An older borther puts his ar around his younger brother
Sahith and his younger brother Sahan Theegala (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

Karuna drove her son to youth soccer practices and junior golf tournaments across the state. Sahith estimates he had played Silverado at least a dozen times in his youth. The golfing accolades stacked up, and Theegala earned a scholarship to play at Pepperdine University.

Hybrid parenting makes a difference

“(My parents) 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,” Theegala said during the winner’s press conference. “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.”

Golf enthusiasts following players on the course
Sahith Theegala’s dad Muralidhar cheering on his son at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

“My dad’s the reason I’m here today. All he knew when he came from India was academics and to study. 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.”

Girlfriend Juju Chan, a former standout collegiate swimmer at Pepperdine, understands the family bond.

“Being somebody of color, and playing this sport, it’s awesome to have his family representing,” she said. “Each week he has a good following no matter where he’s playing or who he’s playing with. His dad’s the one who got him into golf. It means a lot to have him out here.”

A five-stroke lead

After a long putt for birdie on the 14th hole Sunday, Theegala’s lead had grown to five strokes over S.H. Kim of South Korea. Muralidhar let out a yelp in front of a television camera that had been glued to him all afternoon, then pumped his fist and exchanged high-fives with family, friends, and strangers. The crowd grew with each clutch putt, delicate chip, and piercing drive.

“I didn’t see it, but I could hear it!” said Nekkanti, whose view was obstructed by a gallery that had swelled to about six rows deep. She raced for a better viewing location on the 15th tee.

It’s a mostly unfamiliar scene within professional golf, especially when Tiger Woods isn’t playing. A player of color wearing his or her emotions on their sleeve, followed by a diverse fanbase ready to erupt with each birdie and anguish over each near miss.

Diversity in golf

”Representation is so important,” said Christina Harris, following Theegala with her husband, Jovanie, a member of the Sacramento Area Black Golfers Club, and their sons Kyrie, 5, and Jalen, 1. “Especially in spaces where we’re not prominent. Our kids are so visual; they’re visual learners. We appreciate that example for my boys in particular. Kyrie is learning the basics and fundamentals. Jalen has his own set. They’re swinging things that aren’t clubs, like brooms.”

The back of the Black golf club’s shirt reads, “PLAYING TO PROMOTE MORE DIVERSITY IN THE GAME OF GOLF.” Jovanie hopes his sons will have a community of golfers who look like them, and maybe he can one day pump his fist for cameras as Kyrie or Jalen win trophies.

A man wearing a T-shirt that reads Playing to promote more diversity in the game of golf
Alan Cochrane, a member of the Sacramento Area Black Golfers Club (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

“The game is changing,” Jovanie said. “I love seeing folks come on the course, be their authentic selves, and bring something new to the game. Seeing his father on TV, how excited he is, I can only imagine how excited I would be as a father to see my son living his dreams and playing at that high level. And the enthusiasm. It’s good to see the support Theegala is getting from his family. Without family support, it’s unlikely for young golfers to get into the game.”

A role model for an alternate profession

Shaamak Goyal, a 16-year-old who attends Monte Vista High in Danville, took up golf in order to hang out with his friends during the pandemic. Goyal recorded an eagle within three months of playing and was drawn to the 6-foot-3 Indian American from Chino Hills. He woke up at 5 a.m. to watch Theegala tee off in the U.S. Open., saying, “To see an Indian guy play is really special.”

Goyal’s mother, Indrani, who met her husband in New Dehli before immigrating to America, says Theegala “has a huge appeal for a lot of young golfers. Typically, Asian families are focused on academics, so Sahith is a great role model for showing an alternative route as a profession.”

A mother and son stand side by side
Shaamak Goyal and his mother Indrani at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

PGA Winners of Indian heritage

Coincidentally, the two previous PGA Tour winners of Indian heritage were also in the Napa field. Akshay Bhatia, another Southern California native, won the Barracuda Championship in July, breaking the 13-year drought since Arjun Atwal, an India native, won the 2010 Wyndham Championship. Bhatia’s win came in what is known as an “opposite-field event,” played the same week as the British Open, and with a far inferior field to what Theegala faced in Napa.

“It’s definitely discouraging playing a lot of tournaments when you’re younger, not seeing too many people who look like you,” Nekkanti said. “So it’s just so monumental now to see the number of professional golfers and POC golfers, not just of Indian descent, but racially diverse backgrounds. It’s hard to envision a career path when you don’t see a lot of people of your skin color playing. Golf historically has been a very exclusionary sport, so it’s so incredible to see Sahith out here doing what he’s doing, bringing fans from all backgrounds out to watch.” 

Finding the fairway

After back-to-back birdies by Kim, Theegala’s lead is cut to three strokes as he sets to hit his approach shot on the 16th fairway. At last year’s Phoenix Open, Theegala was tied for the lead on the 17th tee Sunday before he hit his driver into the greenside lake. Later that year at the Travelers Championship, he was tied for the lead before a double-bogey on the last hole.

For all of Theegala’s amazing attributes on the course, settling the nerves of his fanbase is not one of them. He considers it “a bonus” when he finds the fairway. 

“I always joke that hitting it that bad for a lot of my life off the tee has helped me just be really creative and just find a way to get the ball in the hole and score and hit all these shots and do whatever it takes to get it in the hole.”

Not so funny when a $1.5 million first-place check is at stake.

An escape artist

As India sportswriter Joy Chakravarty puts it, “There’s a bit of Harry Houdini in him–he is an escape artist who will tie himself in knots with his errant tee shots, and then magically conjure birdies from the most impossible situations. … His golf is that exciting. His pars are more enjoyable and thrilling than the birdies of others.”

Theegala hits his approach to 12 feet on the 16th hole and drains his birdie to extend his lead back to four. After he finds the green on the tricky par-3 17th hole, drawing the shot over the lake and landing his Titleist ball on the middle of the green, he starts to feel a win in his grasp.

Kim birdied 18, giving Theegala a three-shot cushion on the par-5 finishing hole. 

Spectators watching Theegala on the green at the 2023 Fortinet Championship (image courtesy: Nick Lozito)

The win

Theegala drove into the left rough and hit his layup into the thick rough again, drawing a terrible lie. He took a mighty thwack at his approach shot and left himself next to the green but with a tricky angle. Chants of “Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la! Thee-ga-la!” echoed from the grandstands. A chip and two putts later, Theegala was a PGA Tour winner in his 74th career start.

The celebration was on and Theegala, finally able to let his guard down, acknowledged his supporters during the press conference: “I just want them to know that I have their back, too.”

At 6:30 a.m. in Dubai, Chakravarty was already receiving celebratory texts. “Incredible,” the sportswriter said by phone. “I had a feeling he would do it. The family system is very strong.”

On the 18th green, surrounded by family, friends, and a big Fortinet Championship trophy, Nekkanti beams with pride. Years ago, during a speech she gave during a First Tee awards banquet, the San Jose teenager spoke about perseverance. “It’s about empowering the individuals around you by never giving up,” she said. After absorbing some tough defeats and defying the odds of cultural stereotypes and stigmas, her childhood friend had done just that.

“I have been holding in tears for the entirety of the last few holes,” Nekkanti said among the jubilation. “He’s been so close. His game has been so sharp. It’s been a long time waiting.”