JACKSON, Miss. - A lot has changed for Sahith Theegala since the last time he was at The Country Club of Jackson.
He has become one of the fan favorites on the PGA Tour. The 24-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, qualified for the Tour Championship as a rookie last season, one of only two rookies (Cameron Young) to hold that honor. He led the Tour in birdies (433) last season, too.
But most importantly, Theegala has been thrown into the fire. A year ago at the Sanderson Farms Championship, Theegala led or co-led after the first three rounds. He shot 1-under 71 on Sunday, but he finished in a tie for eighth, three shots behind eventual winner Sam Burns.
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Yet Theegala found himself in contention plenty of times during his rookie campaign, including a T-3 at the WM Phoenix Open while playing on a sponsor's exemption and a T-2 at the Travelers Championship. He wasn't able to hoist a trophy come Sunday, but Theegala has grown leaps and bounds since he was last in Jackson.
"I'm still a little … I don't think I'm ever not going to be nervous … I'm still a little nervous," Theegala said. "It's the start of the season, everyone wants to play well in the fall to kind of set themselves up for the spring. But like I mentioned earlier, I'm just a little bit more comfortable. I'm more comfortable just kind of being myself out here, not trying to copy other guys or trying to be like other guys or play like other guys.
"Mostly because knowing that my good golf is good enough to be on the PGA Tour, and I think just having that in the back of my mind, it frees me up a lot more, but also last year was a really incredible year. I'm about as free as I can be right now."
That freeness has helped him become a better golfer. Two weeks ago at the season-opening Fortinet Championship in Napa, California, Theegala found himself again near the top of the leaderboard. He finished tied for sixth, a great start to his second season.
Yet Theegala is searching for more. And being back at the Sanderson Farms Championship is a place where he believes he can find it.
"I love being back here. I made it a point in the fall schedule to definitely be back here," Theegala said. "One of the first events that I got a spot into. I can't thank (tournament director) Steve Jent enough for giving me a spot when I had no status or anything, so that was cool. A lot of good memories being back here."
Two years ago, Theegala made his debut and missed the cut while having only two bogeys. Last year, he led for the first time on Tour. Now, he's hoping to continue the upward trend.
Theegala spent time in Houston last week practicing while the Presidents Cup was going on at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. The two things he's focusing on are dialing in his driver and being more precise with his wedges.
Last season, he ranked 91st in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee at plus .030, and he was plus .680 SG: OTT at the Fortinet Championship, as he gained more than two strokes overall against the field.
Sahith Theegala tees off on the 18th hole during the third round of the Sanderson Farms Championship at the Country Club of Jackson. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
The Country Club of Jackson is playing close to 7,500 yards as a par-72 layout. Theegala said hitting his driver well and making plenty of putts on "some of the best greens on Tour, if not the best greens on Tour,' were keys to his success last year.
But he has found his niche and knows what it takes to be successful on Tour. That's why he's satisfied with his current position.
"I just feel really comfortable," Theegala said. "I think that's the main thing. No matter what my game brings, I'm not too worried about it. I'm just happy to be here."
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek