AUSTIN, Texas — Wednesday’s match was a reunion of sorts for Min Woo Lee and Sahith Theegala.
The last time they went at it on a golf course, both were a couple of exuberant 17-year-olds battling as amateurs in a junior event at the Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Washington, in 2017.
Theegala, a striking figure at 6-3 who would go on to be a three-time All-American at Pepperdine where he won four tournaments and every award there is to win, got the better of Lee in a playoff in their only other head-to-head matchup.
“Oh, that was a really long time ago. Thanks for reminding me,” Lee said playfully. “But I guess this one mattered the most.”
A 1-up win with a 3-foot birdie on the 18th hole in the opening day of the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play meant plenty to Lee, a 24-year-old Aussie who has two wins on the DP World Tour but is trying to gain his PGA Tour card through the Special Temporary Membership, which would grant him unlimited sponsor exemptions. A victory here would gain him a five-year membership to the Tour.
With six birdies, two eagles and a pair of double bogeys, Lee had a remarkable round along with his opponent in what may have been the best match of the day.
He and Theegala put on a show for the fans on this cloudy, muggy day to start the final WGC-Dell event at Austin Country Club. They were just the second pairing of the day but went back and forth before Lee birdied the last two holes after going 1 down on the 16th.
“It was a highlight reel all day,” said Lee, who is competing here for the second straight year after failing to get out of group play in 2022 with a 1-1-1 record.
That it was.
This won’t be the last you hear of these two. Theegala has soared to a No. 29 World ranking on the strength of a fourth-place tie at the Players Championship on the heels of a 14th-place finish at Bay Hill. He also has two other top 10s at the Genesis Invitational and the Farmers Insurance Open.
He’s a strong player with super makeup and a great track record. He made an appearance on Netflix’s “Full Swing.” And he could pose as Tony Finau’s stunt double. He won the Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Haskins awards — only the fifth to ever do so — and probably a few others he can’t even remember.
Lee already has made a name for himself, too, even if he is drafting off the name of his more famous, older sister. He doesn’t mind riding the coattails of Minjee Lee, who has won two majors, including the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open as well as six other LPGA events. She caddied for him in the Par 3 Contest before last year’s Masters where he tied for 14th.
“She’s such a good golfer,” Lee said Tuesday. “So, I feel like if I win an event — I guess, whoever has the last laugh. She’s won a couple majors the last couple years, so I got to win a tournament over here to be able to say something.”
That day may come sooner than later because Lee is one of the longest drivers on the Tour with what would rank as top-five clubhead speed if he qualified on the PGA Tour. He brings an aggressive style that especially suits him in match-play events. He likes taking chances, even moreso at the Dell where big numbers in match play aren’t as punitive as stroke-play events.
In the round-robin pool format, the golfers don’t have to worry about a horrific hole ruining a round, like Lee’s double-bogey on No. 9 when he twice hit trees, might otherwise have.
In this grouping, though, there were precious few bad holes. Neither golfer ever went as much as 2 up all day as the two traded punches throughout. Lee said he’s switched to a stiffer Blue Ventus shaft in his driver that’s “less whippier.”
Lee wowed with a pair of eagles, including one from a fairway bunker on the par-5 12th and another on the par-4 370-yard fifth hole when he drove the green. He then cozied up one of the softest-hit putts from 30 feet you’ll ever see over a couple of ridges to sink the shot for an amazing eagle.
The duo played spectacular golf all day long before Theegala faltered down the stretch when his putter failed him.
The 25-year-old Californian, who is of Indian descent, pushed a 5-footer past the hole on 17 that would have assured him of at least a tie. And then on 18, his tee shot was short of the green, and his second shot sailed over the flag, leaving him a 17-foot comeback to clinch a draw.
Theegala’s attempt missed just an inch or two to the right of the cup. He looked downright crushed emotionally after the intense showdown and declined to talk afterward.
Both golfers will have plenty to say in the coming years as phenomenal talents who just get better. These two represent the next wave of great young golfers who are flashing of late and making some noise.
Theegala learned to play the game at age 3 and was entranced by golf since he was glued to the television set with his father.
“Absolutely. He’d sit with me and love to watch golf,” said Murli Theegala, who along with his wife Karuna followed their son every emotional hole. “For me, he’s making slow and steady progress. It’s just his second year on Tour and he still has to make progress to show he didn’t just have a lucky year last season. Winning, you can’t really control. But I’m sure it’ll happen.”
“He’s right there,” Karuna echoed.
Lee’s following the same path although he’s been playing on the DP World Tour and hoping to land a spot in America with the Special Temporary Membership to play full-time. Just two weeks ago, he grabbed the final spot to gain entrance to the Players field and responded with a tie for sixth. Theegala came in fourth, close behind.
Lee’s certainly on his way. Ranked 47th in the world, the slender, mustachioed player had a highly decorated junior career before turning pro in 2019. That counts that mano-a-mano battle with Theegala at Sahalee when Lee had the only sub-par round of the day in a 66-player field and came from seven back to force a playoff.
“My boy had a big lead over him,” Murli said. “He was leading by six strokes but shot a 78. Lee went 2 under to tie him, but my boy hit a spectacular shot to win.”
Payback came six years later when Lee won in a match with much higher stakes. It sets the stage for a Thursday match with 11th-seeded Matt Fitzpatrick, who suffered one of the biggest upsets of the day when he fell 5 and 3 to defending Valero Texas Open champion J.J. Spaun, the 54th seed in the tournament. Lee’s also got to worry that Fitzpatrick wants some revenge of his own after losing to Lee in a playoff for the Abrdn Scottish Open in 2021.
“I have been playing wonderful for the last few months, and I hope I can continue that, but I feel like I’ve just started to get into my craft, and (learning) what shots to hit and what misses I have. And after you get that, I think you just need a couple good breaks, and hopefully you can hold a trophy at the end of the week.”
So he thinks a win’s coming soon, maybe even by Sunday?
Lee shrugged and said, “I feel like I’m close-ish.”
Theegala knows the feeling, too.