Sahith Theegala and Rose Zhang both grew up in Southern California and share a trainer, who it turns out deserves most of the credit for their teaming up at this week’s Grant Thornton Invitational in Naples, Florida.
Theegala, who played his college golf at Pepperdine, has been keeping track of Zhang’s exploits during her college career at Stanford, and when the Grant Thornton Invitational was announced as transforming into a mixed-team event this year, he remembers thinking, “I need to find a way to get her out to play with me this year.”
That’s when their mutual trainer started a text thread between the three of them early this year, where he declared they were going to team up in the event.
“Rose was like, ‘Well, I’ve got to turn pro first,’” Theegala recalled. “So yeah, I like casually brought it up. Kind of like not really jokingly but kind of jokingly. She just turned pro and killed it right away, and I was like, ‘Am I good enough to still be your partner?’”
Indeed, he is. The 26-year-old Theegala won this event at Tiburon Golf Club last year with Tom Hoge as his partner when there were just two mixed-team pairings. Zhang turned pro this summer and is proving to be a force to be reckoned with, and likely a hot commodity for this event. The inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational is the first mixed-team co-sanctioned event between the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour since John Daly and Laura Davies won the final JCPenney Classic in 1999, and a revival of the concept has long been in the making.
“This week is really special for not only me but everyone in this event,” Zhang said. “I don’t get to play with PGA Tour players often, so being able to play with Sahith, and from afar you always watch these players on TV, and you always admire their games, how far they hit it, how precise they are, how creative they are with their shots. It’s just kind of cool to just be inside the ropes to see that, let alone teaming up. Yeah, it’s going to be a fun ride.”
Lexi Thompson, 28, who had played in the QBE Shootout previously and competed against the men in the PGA Tour’s Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas in October, echoed that sentiment.
“I think this is what golf needs is more team events, especially mixed men and women’s, and I think fans will really love it,” she said.
Women’s golf is on the rise, and Theegala said an event like the Grant Thornton Invitational will showcase just how talented they really are.
“I didn’t realize how far Lexi hits it or how good Nelly’s iron game is and stuff like that,” he said. “They’re the best players in the world. They stack up to the Tour guys, if not better than the Tour guys, in a lot of areas.”
Rickie Fowler, 34, is teaming with Thompson. Originally, he was supposed to play with Jessica Korda, but she had to back out for a very good reason – she’s expecting her first child.
“I tried to talk her into it like you can still do it, but yeah, she ultimately bailed,” Fowler said with a smile. “It was a pretty easy decision from there.”
Fowler and Thompson couldn’t pinpoint the first time they met but figured it was at a Cobra-Puma shoot, the equipment and apparel makers they both endorse, around 2010.
“Team events are always a good time just because you can kind of lean on each other, but it’s also some added pressure, as well, because you want to perform and execute when it comes down to alternate shot (the format used during Sunday’s final round),” Fowler said. “Yeah, we have a pretty strong field both on the men’s and the women’s side. No one has come in here just to enjoy December offseason. There’s a lot of pride at stake.”
The bond between these teams may have been forged over text strings and at photo shoots, but this week they are thicker than blood.
“If you hit it in the weeds, I won’t be mad,” Fowler said to Thompson. “It’s fine.”