WESTLAKE VILLAGE, California – Growing up in Chino Hills, California, Pepperdine senior Sahith Theegala was a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan. Born in 1997, Theegala can remember the three consecutive titles that Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and company won, beginning in 2000.
“Those were my earliest memories of watching sports,” Theegala said. “My dad tells me stories. I would cry when the Lakers would lose and Kobe would have a bad game.”
Theegala will also never forget Sunday. He was playing a practice round for the Waves’ spring opener, the Southwestern Invitational, at North Ranch Country Club when about 10 miles away Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas, less than a half-mile from Theegala’s apartment off Los Virgenes Road.
“It hurt a lot of us, but it really hit him hard,” Pepperdine head coach Michael Beard said.
As far as athletes go, Bryant was Theegala’s guy, his inspiration, his hero.
“He was my sports idol, as well as millions and millions of other people,” Theegala said. “To lose him a couple days ago was absolutely devastating and heartbreaking, and I was just really happy I could pay respects to him.”
Carrying a black Lakers jersey with Bryant’s No. 8 on it in his golf bag for 18 holes Tuesday, Theegala put on a show. He shot a final-round, 6-under 66 to win the Southwestern for a second time, edging USC’s Leon D’Souza by a shot at 12 under.
And to honor Bryant, Theegala grabbed the jersey from his bag after hitting his approach into the par-4 18th hole and put it on, wearing it for his final two putts.
“The Mamba mentality that he had all the time, I tried to instill that in myself, and I don’t know if I ever can, especially to his level; I don’t know if anyone ever can,” said Theegala, who battled back from a serious wrist injury suffered in August 2018 that kept him out a whole year and forced him to redshirt last season. “That really meant a lot for me to be able to do that on 18.”
As for Pepperdine, the sixth-ranked Waves won by 17 shots over USC and Arizona State. Joining Theegala in the top 10 were teammates Joey Vrzich (T-6), Clay Feagler (T-8), Dylan Menate (T-8) and William Mouw (T-8). Menate and Mouw were playing as individuals.
“Hopefully we can keep it going,” said Beard, who could’ve fielded the fourth-place team with his five players competing as individuals. “Looking forward to going to Hawaii next week. We have to figure out who were going to take first, but I know the guys are pumped.”
Beard was especially pumped for Theegala. On the way to North Ranch on Tuesday morning, Theegala asked Beard if he could wear Kobe’s jersey as tribute.
“He told me, ‘Coach, he’s my idol. I want to do it,’” Beard recalled. “I said, ‘Go do it.’”
Theegala did, making seven birdies and a clutch two-putt par on the par-3 17th that gave him his final lead of the tournament. Theegala's victory Tuesday was his third in fourth starts, a run that also included wins at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational and Australian Master of the Amateurs and figures to bump him inside the top 10 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking (he entered the week at No. 11).
“I did it for Mamba,” Theegala said, choking up. “Absolutely did it for Mamba.”