MEMPHIS — If you handicap the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year run, there are five players who have a realistic shot, barring a miraculous playoff run from someone unannounced.
A week ago, Cameron Young was the comfortable favorite – with two second-place finishes (including a solo runner-up at the Open Championship) and a ninth-place finish in the regular season FedEx Cup standings, he had the best resume . It got more complicated when 20-year-old Joonhyung “Tom” Kim ended his torrid summer with a Wyndham Championship victory, becoming the only rookie winner on the tour aside from Chad Ramey (who otherwise struggled to make cuts ) and forcing his way into the playoffs. Whether he simultaneously became the favorite is a matter of debate, but at the very least he made Young’s position less secure.
Outside of those two, Davis Riley finished 23rd in the standings and had six top 10 finishes, and Mito Pereira made 16 cuts and contested the PGA Championship. The fifth, and most intriguing competitor so far in the FedEx St. Jude Championship, is Sahith Theegala.
The 24-year-old Californian won two player of the year awards as a college senior in 2020, and in his remarkable rookie campaign on tour, he made 23 of 29 cups. His most infamous moments came at the WM Phoenix Open, when he hit his practice in the water on the 17th to miss a playoff by one shot, and at the Travelers Championship, when a double bogey on the 18th transformed what looked like his first PGA. Victory of the Tour in a defeat in two stages. Nonetheless, he was a model of consistency, and in 39th place in the FedEx Cup standings, he entered the playoffs with a great chance of making the Tour Championship.
That luck looks even better after his torrid first round in Memphis, when Theegala shot 63 to finish the day third in solo, just one behind Si Woo Kim and JJ Spaun. Playing the back nine first, he got off to a quick start with 14-foot and 10-foot birdie putts on holes 12 and 13, moved up and down the bunker on the 16th for another birdie, then caught fire at the forward with three consecutive birdies. numbers 2 through 4. Two solid saves by the 16 and 17 carried him all the way down the stretch, and he punctuated the round with a 25-footer for a birdie on the 18.
“I had a few putts to go, which is great,” Theegala said afterwards, “but I drove it amazing. It’s probably my best driving lap of the year. I maybe hit I guess I hit 11 or 12 fairways and those fairways are pretty tight It’s cool to see some of the work that me and Rick [Hunter] put, my trainer, just in the last few days.”
Theegala recently moved to The Woodlands neighborhood in Texas, and that fact is more than just an anecdote – it helped him in Memphis with Bermuda weed.
“Honestly, I attribute some of that to the move to Houston,” he said. “I moved to Houston four months ago now, to The Woodlands, and I’ve been training in this stuff like every day. I’ll never play in grittier conditions than there and these could be a bit more grainy, so that’s helped a ton.”
As for Rookie of the Year, he tries not to fixate on it or let it rule his day-to-day decisions, but it’s an award he covets nonetheless.
“Yeah, that would mean a ton to me obviously,” he said. “It would be a super cool honor, but giving out an award like that has never been my style. I think Cam Young is the favorite right now and he’s had a hell of a season. A few other rookies, Mito and Davis , and Chad with the win.”
Despite his success, Theegala doesn’t have much leeway against his opponents. Riley was the worst of the bunch, but the worst in this case means he shot a respectable 69 and remains very much in the mix. Young checked in under 67, Mito Pereira, playing in Theegala’s band, shot a 67 himself, and Kim continued his scorching summer by doing them better with a 66.
The rookies delivered as a group, and although Theegala had their noses ahead at the start of the playoffs, the big prize is definitely up for grabs.