Sahith Theegala had a great amateur career, won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour, but has never won on the PGA Tour, though he’s been in contention a couple times in this his rookie season. He drives to each tournament. His parents are immigrants from India. Sahith was born in Orange County, California. On Sunday he was co-leading the Phoenix Open as he teed it up on hole 17, a reachable 345-yard par 4 with water on three sides of the green. Some say it’s the best, and possibly the most difficult, driveable par 4 on Tour. The other co-leader was Patrick Cantley, one the top players on Tour in the group just ahead.
Theegala also found himself surrounded on the leaderboard by a whole host of other elite talent. Holding off Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Scottie Scheffler is no picnic, but Theegala seemed up to it. He teed it up at the intimidating 17th, ripped 2-hybrid on a baby fade line and was just one bounce to the right away from a two-putt birdie and a likely victory. The ball stayed straight and rolled into the water behind the green. Sahith tore off his glove and slapped it across his thigh in disgust and disappointment. He knew his precious first PGA win was gone.
And yet as Sahith approached the green on the 18th, the crowd started chanting his name. Stopping for selfies with members of the crowd during his round, he had endeared himself to this crowd of Arizonans. He made a nifty up-and-down at No. 18 to hang onto T3. After the round, an emotional Theegala greeted his family and spoke openly to the media about what the experience had meant to him. The entire sequence — the gritty contention, the aggression, the emotion — gained Theegala a legion of new admirers.
So what can we learn from Sahith? The infamous crowd at the Phoenix is not an easy bunch to please. Infused with alcohol and permission, they jeer more than they cheer. But this refreshingly relaxed and, yes, lovable, young man was not concerned with any of that. He not only let his clubs do the talking, he connected with the gallery as any real person–witness Arnold Palmer, Jordan Spieth, and Bill Murray–would.
So, like Sahith, learn your golf skills, be personable out there, have some fun, and play the best you can with the skills you have. But unlike Sahith on the 17th, play smart. With water surrounding the green on this driveable par 4, pull a club you know will get you near the green but stay dry. Golf, like chess and football, is a game of placement. Sure, you have to stay in the moment for the shot at hand, but you need to consider where you want that shot to go and how that might affect your next shot. It’s a strategic game, a mental game. Like many such games, if you get too greedy you can run into big trouble. You really need to think your way around the course, and keep that irksome ego in check.
But this was only Sahith’s 11th PGA event. He will learn and, I suspect, will be a popular contender for years to come.
Bernhard Langer is 64 years old and is still–defying all odds–beating guys on the Champions Tour many years younger. He is an inspiration to guys like me, growing increasingly longer in the tooth and wondering how much longer–as we increasingly get shorter and shorter–we can continue knocking that little pill around. Langer has obviously kept himself in shape which has buoyed his confidence and his actual ability to keep up his formidable golf skills. He is no where near the longest hitter out there, but his iron play is impeccable and has that long putter tamed like a purring lion. Langer the Lion-hearted. I like that commercial that has Scott McCarron joke, “Oh, Langer!” when he hears the name of his nemesis who has denied him many a win.
What can we learn from Bernie, as his colleagues affectionately call him? Well, what can’t we learn? He’s not that long off the tee, but he consistently keeps it in play. That sets him up for a good lie and a chance at putting it close for a look at bird–a key to success for anyone who plays this tough game. His swing is compact, entering the impact zone with precision and consistency. I doubt if he has a swing thought in his head. Doesn’t need one, I suspect. He’s been doing this correctly for so many years, he drops all thoughts once he has the shot figured out and is committed to his and his caddie’s plan of attack.
There is no doubt in Bernhard Langer’s brain when he approaches any and all golf shots. I’d bet a million on that. And that is what we can most learn from this golf legend. Build your golf skills, condition your body, and train your brain to withstand the rigors of time.
And…Bernhard just won his 43rd event on the Champions Tour, just two behind the great Hale Irwin for all-time leader. Congrats to this amazing player.
The Midwest Review of Books has written an excellent review of my recent book, Golf 360: For Current Players and Those Considering the Game. Check it out at www.stephenaltschuler.com.