Theegala finds an easy path to 64 and lead in Mississippi

Sanderson Farms

Sungjae Im of South Korea watches his drive off the first tee during the first round of the Sanderson Farms Championship golf tournament in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — California rookie Sahith Theegala carved his tee shots into play and made it look easy from there Thursday for an 8-under 64 and an early one-shot lead over Nick Watney in the Sanderson Farms Championship.

Theegala missed three fairways but was really out of position just once at the Country Club of Jackson. He had a birdie putt on every hole but one and finished his round with a 15-foot birdie on the par-4 ninth.

It also was a big start for Watney, coming off one of his worst seasons. Watney holed a couple of long putts, including a 45-footer for eagle on the par-5 second hole, for his lowest start to a PGA Tour event in 15 months.

Defending champion Sergio Garcia, the only player from the Ryder Cup last week in the field, and former U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland were among those playing in the afternoon.

Theegala is on the growing list of young Americans with a strong pedigree. He swept the three awards as NCAA college player of the year his senior year at Pepperdine, which was cut short by the pandemic. He made it to the PGA Tour on his first try through the Korn Ferry Tour finals.

In his second start as a rookie, he found the tree-lined course to his liking and said his round was best described as “really stress free.”

That started from the tee.

“Just drove it really well. I was really working it well,” Theegala said. “I got my slider back. I was hitting a pretty good cut — probably 25- to 30-yard cut — out there and this course kind of allows it because the trees around the tee box aren’t that close.

“I really felt comfortable all day,” he said. “Being in the fairway helps so much.”

His putter was working just fine, too. Only three of his eight birdies were inside the 15-foot range, and those were on the par 5s. He also made a 15-foot par save from the bunker on the par-3 fourth hole, the only time he was threatened with a bogey.

Watney once reached the Tour Championship five straight years and played in the Presidents Cup until he was slowed by a herniated disk in his lower back. He missed the cut in all but six of the 25 events he played last year and worked hard in the month off between seasons.

Most of that was his putting, and that started with his head.

“I think I missed a lot of putts before I even stroked the ball,” Watney said. “A lot of doubt on my read or stroke or posture, just a lot of unnecessary thoughts. So I tried to develop a process of trusting myself more. And so far, so good.”

Two shots behind were Roger Sloan of Canada and Kurt Kitayama, another Californian in his first full year on the PGA Tour who is nothing like Theegala.

Sunjae Im and Corey Conners were among those at 67.

Kitayama went to UNLV and after two tough years on the PGA Tour’s developmental circuit, he took his game overseas. He started on the Asian Tour, earned his European Tour card through qualifying school and won twice on the European Tour two seasons ago.

He finished 23rd of the 25 players who earned PGA Tour cards through the Korn Ferry Tour finals. It’s been a hectic few weeks.

Since then, Kitayama went back to England to play the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, his caddie tested positive for the coronavirus and he had to find a new caddie for the start of his PGA Tour season two weeks ago in Napa, California.

There was no golf last week because of the Ryder Cup.

“Having a week off was kind of nice to settle down,” he said.

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