By Billy Watkins

       For all those golfers out there who insist on doing things their way, meet 23-year-old PGA Tour rookie Sahith Theegala. He’s your kind of guy.

         He began playing the game cross handed. He won the Junior Golf World Championship at age 6 that way.

         As he grew older, and after converting to a conventional grip, he never worried much about his tee shots going astray. He gripped it and ripped it and always figured his short game would save him.

         Theegala had it all working Thursday at the first round of the Sanderson Farms Championship at the Country Club of Jackson. In Mississippi’s only PGA Tour event, Theegala shot a sizzlin’ 8-under par 64 to take a one-shot lead.

         He did so with a new driver — and, of course, there was a non-conventional element to that, also. While most people switch to a shorter driver to help gain more control, Theegala asked Ping to make him a longer one.

Photo by Hays Collins

         “I’m like, if I’m going to hit it off line, I might as well hit it a little bit further,” Theegala said following Thursday’s round. “Funny enough, I’m hitting it way straighter.”

         He averaged 322 yards per drive and hit 11 of 14 fairways.

         Never fear, Theegala knows what he’s doing. He became only the fifth collegiate golfer to win all three Player of the Year awards at Pepperdine in 2020.

         Perhaps that is one reason he seemed unfazed by his stellar round less than a month after earning his PGA Tour card.

         “I’m not really thinking about big situations or stuff like that,” Theegala said. “It just feels like I’m playing golf. So that has helped a little bit — not having expectations, kind of just being on a free roll the whole time.”

         Nick Watney and Harold Varner III are tied one stroke behind Theegala. 

         Varner and his wife, Amanda, are expecting their first child next week. 

         “I don’t really think about it at all out there because there is nothing I can do to make that kid come out,” Varner said. “And the doctor … she goes to school for 100 years and still doesn’t know when these kids come. So it is what it is. I’ll be prepared.”

         Varner has been flirting with nabbing his first PGA Tour win. He had five Top 20 finishes to end the 2020-21 season and finished tied for 16th two weeks ago at the Fortinet Championship — the season opener — in Napa, California.

         He credits his putter for the strong showings.

         “The way I’m putting it right now, I just need to get it on the green,” Varner said after his round Thursday.

         Three are tied for fourth, two shots back, including veteran Si Woo Kim.

         Mississippians Andy Ogletree and Hayden Buckley shot a 5-under 67. 

         Ogletree grew up in the tiny Newton County community of Little Rock and finished low amateur last April at The Masters. He played the first two rounds with Tiger Woods.

         Buckley grew up in Tupelo and hoped for a scholarship offer to play in the SEC for Ole Miss or Mississippi State. Both schools passed, but he wound up playing in the SEC after all, for Missouri.

         Chad Ramey, a Fulton native who played at Mississippi State, is six shots behind. He recently secured his PGA Tour card.

Photo by Hays Collins

         Other notables in the field:  2019 U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland, Corey Conners and Sungjae Im are three strokes back.  Veteran Brandt Snedeker and Olympic silver medalist Rory Sabbatini are five behind.

         Defending champion Sergio Garcia, who was splendid for the losing European team in last weekend’s Ryder Cup, shot 70 and sits six strokes back. Given the physical and emotional drain he endured last weekend, Garcia deserves props for coming to Mississippi to defend his title. Fans were vocal with their support for him.

         The tournament, which runs through Sunday, is a major fundraiser for Children’s of Mississippi, the only hospital in the state devoted exclusively to the care and treatment of sick and injured youngsters.