Sahith Theegala is tied for second against the deepest field in golf at one of the four tournaments that matter above the rest, yet the man himself said he feels like an imposter.

Yes, it is only Thursday, and major championship history is littered with rank-and-file who made a one-round appearance on the biggest stages before retreating to their place on the hierarchy. But Theegala, author of a first-round 66 at this PGA Championship, is no pretender. You don’t rise to the heights he’s reached (fifth on the FedEx Cup standings, sixth on tour in strokes gained, 12th in the world ranking) off one-week wonders.

However, Theegala admitted after his morning round at Valhalla that now three seasons into his tour career he thinks, no, knows he’s not among the best players in the sport.

“It’s weird, I don’t feel like there’s only 11 players in the world better than me,” Theegala said. “Obviously with the whole tour/LIV thing, that’s not the case. There are guys out on LIV that are better golfers than me from an objective standpoint, and subjective. But I definitely feel myself getting better on and off the course.”

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On the surface that may seem like fake humility. Ego is not so much desired as it is a prerequisite in professional sports. Especially in golf. It takes a special type of conviction, and crazy, to look at 155 of the best players in the game and surmise you can compete and beat them. Even those whose names you don’t know harbour this outlook, who look at the likes of Wyndham Clark and Max Homa and Nick Taylor and think the only difference is a four good days. Self-belief is their current and without it the lights go out.

Theegala isn’t short on poise or aplomb. This is a cat who would purposefully hit shanks on the driving range to mess with opponents, and you don’t pull a stunt like that without knowing you can back it up on the course. But Theegala said on Thursday that one of the things he’s worked on is knowing who he is, and—as of now—what he’s not.

He pointed to his final college season in 2020 when he became just the fifth player to win the Haskins, Hogan and Nicklaus awards in the same year. Theegala knew he was the best player then, and it’s a credence he’s tried to chase ever since.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel that way again,” Theegala conceded. “We all strive to get to that point. But yeah, sometimes you look at the guys on the top of the world, and you’re like, Am I ever going to be like Rory or Xander? And the answer is no. Or even Brooks; the answer is no.

“I’m just hoping I can find my own path again because that’s what led to my success my senior year of college.”

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The assessment is not wrong. Despite Theegala’s fledgling success and the trajectory his talent promises, the truth is he isn’t among the upper echelons as of yet. He sees what you see, which is one career tour win in 89 starts, and he’s had a few stumbles while in contention. He’s mostly been a non-factor thus far at the major championships, a lone top-25 finish in eight starts.

He’s also aware that it’s not just four days between him and stardom, but also consistency and making the most of the opportunities you get, knowing they might not return. It’s why he doesn’t play with expectations, he says, because he knows that road lies madness.

Conversely, it’s precisely that pursuit that gives Theegala hope. He knows he’s not as good as others, that it might take years to get where he wants to go and he might never get there. But he feels like it’s at least heading in the right direction, and to Theegala the joy is in the work.

“Even though it might be a very small amount of progress, I definitely feel it, and I think my team around me feels it,” Theegala explained. “I don’t try and compare myself too much, but it just feels like every single part of my game, I have a very easy path to—I know it can get better.”

Only Xander Schauffele’s recording-breaking 62 is ahead of Theegala on the board. It was a lights-out score in spite of what Theegala called an “average” ball-striking day, a score aided by consecutive birdies on his final three holes. It puts him in a position to have a life-altering weekend. The finish isn’t changing his mindset for what’s ahead. Theegala knows how good the names are above and around him.

“There’s a level of acceptance I’ve given myself recently, and it’s translated into my golf really well,” Theegala. “Kind of the same deal, though, like no expectations, everything kind of feels like a bonus.”

But under that modesty is still a dog, one who likes to prove his mettle while discovering what’s left to find. The beauty about major championship golf is it separates the men from the imposters. This weekend is going to allow Sahith Theegala to find out how good he really is.

Main image: Andrew Redington