Most things in her life require adjustment. Much is new. Even more is different. There is a risk of sensory overload given how much she doesn’t know; how much she has never seen. But she remains open to the wonders. She embraces the fear. That is what her countrymen have done throughout history. It is part of who she is.
“I moved here in January and started at Santa Barbara City College, so it’s been a transition but it has been great,” 19-year-old Pratima Sherpa told me this week by phone while she was in a car traveling through Southern California, another happy teenager on her way to the golf course. “Going to a new school and playing different courses over here (in the States), working with a coach here, it’s all been wonderful.”
To hear her flawless but accented English, you might assume Sherpa is a student-athlete from Great Britain or Sweden, maybe Germany or the Netherlands. Those young people – groomed through federations and national teams – are as common on American college campuses as kids from Kansas or Kentucky. Most women’s college golf rosters have two or more players from, as they say in Tallahassee and Tuscaloosa, “off.”
But Sherpa is not like other students or other golfers. She is unique. And that is not a figurative platitude. Sherpa is, by all objective measures, one of a kind, a girl with dreams and aspirations that climb higher than the mountains of her homeland. And with a story that is a movie in the making.
It begins in Kathmandu at the Royal Nepal Golf Club, within sight of Mount Everest, where Pratima’s parents work on the course. Her mother trims grass with scissors, putting the clippings into a wool sack she fills up and carries away on her back. Pratima’s father is a security guard and general laborer. They have lived for more than two decades in a 200-square-foot corner of a maintenance shed behind the third green, sharing space with each other and the rudimentary equipment used to keep up one of the nation’s four golf courses.
Pratima began golf with a stick her father cut from the jungle. When several of the members saw a little girl swinging a tree branch, they cobbled together a mismatched set of clubs. Soon, Pratima was practicing every day.
“If you want to go into training in golf, that is for men, not women,” she told me. “We now have 10 to 15 lady golfers. But they need sponsors and there simply aren’t any.
“There are many men golfers in Nepal and people invite men into the game because in Nepal culture, women can’t do what men can do. When you’re a woman, people say, ‘You have no future in golf.’
“My father didn’t even want me to continue with golf because I was practicing every day. He told me, ‘You have to study rather than play golf because you have a future in school but not in golf.’
“But now, here I am.”
Pratima’s skill attracted a lot of attention. With so many Westerners visiting Nepal for mountaineering, word spread about the girl from the maintenance shed. She won numerous tournaments in her homeland – most contested in her backyard.
She also caught the attention of a family in America who invited Pratima to stay with them in order to compete in international junior competitions. They organized coaches and gave her the tools to elevate her game. Not only was the trip her first outside of her home country, it was the first time she’d ever seen an ocean or eaten ice cream; the first time she had stood on a manicured golf course or had anything resembling a formal lesson.
Her story caught the attention of ESPN producers who made a documentary about her hosted by Tom Rinaldi. When Tiger Woods heard about Sherpa, he made time to give her a 30-minute private lesson in Florida.
Now, two years later, her dream takes the next step. Thanks to a sponsor exemption, Pratima Sherpa is playing as an amateur in the Symetra Tour’s IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Beaumont, Calif., a 54-hole tournament that will end on Sunday.
Last week, she was in Phoenix where she met Nancy Lopez, Lizette Salas and other players during the launch of the LPGA’s “Drive On” brand campaign. Roberta Bowman, the LPGA’s chief brand and communications officer, recognized Sherpa at the event.
“What do you call the insurmountable odds that Pratima Sherpa faced as she set her dream to become a professional golfer?” Bowman asked. “Pratima has come a long way in her journey. Kathmandu … that’s where the seed of ambition started. And she’s had that seed cultivated with great support from around the world.”
“Honestly, I don’t know how (the sponsor exemption) happened,” Sherpa said. “In my life, I have so many people helping me. I have my family, and my host family and my golf family. They have all been very important and very special. People from around the world are texting me and encouraging me. It’s wonderful.
“I’m trying to be the first female professional from Nepal. I know what that means, not just for me, but for my family and for all Nepalis.” – Pratima Sherpa
“It makes me so proud when I hear people say, ‘Oh, you’re the Nepali girl.’ Yes, it’s pressure but pressure is good for me. I’m trying to be the first female professional from Nepal. I know what that means, not just for me, but for my family and for all Nepalis.”
Mike Nichols, the chief business officer of the Symetra Tour, said, “Anyone watching Pratima’s story is immediately struck by the insurmountable odds she has already overcome. She has an optimism and spirit that is both infectious and inspiring. We are proud to play a small part in writing the next chapter of her incredible story.”
When your home is in the clouds, it’s easier to keep your feet on the ground. On that front, Pratima is doing a good job of managing change.
“My expectation this week is just to take in a new experience,” she said. “I just want to learn many things about the tour and the tournament, the style of the players and their course management. I just want to take it all in. I want to learn as much as I can.”
Pratima Sherpa with her parents. Photo: Michael Montano
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