Sahith Theegala was candid. He was sincere. Even after a final-round 68 at the BMW Championship that firmed up his spot in next week’s Tour Championship as a rookie, he said he still doesn’t feel like he belongs on the PGA Tour.
“Even yesterday, I was walking up 18, hit my 5-wood in the right rough, which is so standard there, and I was just — I turned to [caddie] Carl [Smith], I was like, it’s incredible how much better I could get and how bad,” Theegala said matter-of-factly Sunday at Wilmington Country Club. “I totally agree some parts of my game have been incredible this year, but just playing with some of these guys, they are so good, and seeing different facets of their game that I feel like I can improve so much more in every area of the game.”
In a way so rarely seen on the PGA Tour, Theegala pealed back the curtain on what emotions he felt with a spot in the Tour Championship on the line.
He started the day on the number, projected 30th in the FedEx Cup standings. Top 30 get to play in the Tour Championship and all that comes with it: a berth in all four of next year’s major championships and the Players Championship and exemptions into the Genesis Invitational, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Memorial, which will have increased, $20 million purses next season. And then there’s the ridiculous purse for FedEx Cup, in which the winner at East Lake takes home $18 million.
Even next week’s 30th (last) place finisher gets a check for $300k.
Theegala admitted he was feeling the nerves on the morning of the final round.
“I had my best friend, Roy, with me this week, and it was cool having him by my side. But I was nervous,” he said. “I had a little bit of the shakes warming up. I couldn’t hold my hands still. I felt great mindset-wise, but just body-wise, I knew something big was on the line.
He said his birdie on the opening hole helped settle those nerves.
But even Theegala, who’s successful rookie campaign featured a couple of close calls with top-3 finishes at Phoenix and Hartford, said the pressure of trying to make a Tour Championship was just as much as trying to win a tournament.
So often we heard this week of pros saying their mindset was take care of business at this tournament and the FedEx Cup standing would take care of itself. On Sunday, Theegala might as well have said the opposite.
“I’m in 30th place out of 70 people, and I’m as nervous as if I were near the lead,” Theegala said. “It was definitely different, and it definitely felt like a tournament within a tournament. That putt on the last hole just felt so big. It really felt like some of the putts I had made coming down the stretch when I was near the lead there.”
He wasn’t really ever close. His 68 put him at 7-under for the week, good for a tie for 15th, but seven strokes back of winner Patrick Cantlay. Nevertheless the nerves were still there and that’s what made the week fun for Theegala.
“Oh, that’s what it’s all about. The fact that you’re even in that position to feel nerves is a good thing,” he said. “I think that’s something I tell a lot of guys is like, hey, if you’re nervous, that’s such a good feeling. Imagine not being nervous, then what you’re doing kind of thing. Obviously there’s a fine line between serious nervousness and anxiety and comfortability, and finding that line is tough, but yeah, just pressure is a privilege, and I sure felt that way today.”
His round couldn’t have done anything to alleviate any of those nerves. He hit only one fairway, but somehow managed 13 greens mostly hitting out of Wilmington Country Club’s deep rough and made five birdies in order to secure his tie for 15th. Four of those five came in the last seven holes to move from outside the Top-30 in the FedEx Cup to No. 28 in the standings, punching his ticket to Atlanta.
But there were notable moments outside of the birdies coming down the stretch.
“Sixteen, it was my bread and butter, kind of the low stinger fade that I hit with a 3-iron all year, and just squirted right on me and hit a tree like 160 yards off the tee,” Theegala said. “I was just so frustrated there. I was like, come on, this is the one chance — I still hadn’t hit a fairway to that point, so I caught a great lie in the rough.
“I had like 210 or 220 to the hole. I was just trying to blast it over the green. Blasted it over the green, had a tough lie but knew it was an easy chip, so chipped it in there to three feet, which was great.”
Then the crescendo of for Theegala came on after finally finding the fairway for the only time all day.
“Best tee shot I’ve hit in a long time. I think I had like 70 yards in. Hit a horrible pitch there. I was like, oh, great, I hit a fairway and now I whiff the wedge,” Theegala said. “But I just had a good feeling over that putt. I hadn’t really made any long putts this week, and it had a nice look to it, and I didn’t have to hit it too hard because it was a touch downhill, and it was just tracking the whole way. I gave a pretty big fist pump, which I’ve been holding in for seems like over a month now.
“I can’t remember the last time I fist pumped, so that was cool.”
His 37-footer got him to 7-under for the week, the number which would eventually prove critical for him, if he could stay there.
He missed the green on 18 and needed to get up and down from short and right of the green.
“I felt very comfortable that I’d get it up-and-down. I didn’t know how I would,” Theegala said. “But the fact that it was left to what I feel is the strongest part of my game was fitting. [I] hit a decent chip. I was nervous on that for sure, but left myself an easy putt, and it was really satisfying to hit my line on that one.”
He may not have remembered his last fist pump before 17, but it didn’t take long for his next one after he drained the 7-footer on 18 for par and to get in the clubhouse at 7-under.
However his season is not over and he will play for the $75 million in FedEx Cup bonus money in Atlanta with the rest of the top-30.
“I think the validation of the season, it’s another step for me to feel like I really belong because I still don’t feel like I’m really there at the top of the game,” Theegala said. “Slowly building confidence every week, whether it’s a good or bad week. I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress.
“It would mean the world to make the Tour Championship and stand along 29 of the other best golfers in the world.”
He’s come along from his initial goal at the start of the season.
“The fact that I’m even on the PGA Tour is pretty absurd,” Theegala admitted. “My only expectation was really to keep my card, and obviously I’ve blown that out of the water.”