The 20-year-old Nepali golfer Pratima Sherpa. Photo: AFP
KATHMANDU: When Pratima Sherpa started playing golf as a child, she used a rudimentary club her father had carved from a tree branch. Fast-forward a decade, and Pratima – by this stage Nepal’s top female golfer – was getting a lesson from the legendary Tiger Woods. It has been an amazing journey.
The 20-year-old – who stands a mere 1.57 metres (5 feet 1 inch) tall – grew up in a shed next to the Royal Nepal Golf Club’s nine-hole course, which, despite being near Kathmandu’s international airport, is prowled by troops of monkeys and the occasional leopard.
Several strokes of luck, some generous sponsors, talent and determination have propelled her halfway around the world in her quest to turn pro.
“Apart from my own professional ambitions, I want to inspire the next generation in Nepal and help kids who, like me, can’t automatically afford to play golf,” says Sherpa.
“Meeting Tiger [Woods] in the summer of 2018 was like a dream. He’d read about me in a golfing magazine and invited me to come to the Medallist Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida. The moment he stepped out of his golf cart I couldn’t stop myself – I just flung my arms around my hero.” The meeting was supposed to be limited to a photo session, but the one-time world No. 1 took Sherpa to the range and lent her his clubs.
Inspiring day working with my @TGRFound team and meeting Pratima Sherpa, an amazing young woman from Nepal. We can all learn from her perseverance, hard work and determination. pic.twitter.com/rV5KAtKzzl
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) April 24, 2018
“I was incredibly nervous but incredibly excited at the same time,” says Sherpa. “He watched me while I hit the ball a couple of times and said, ‘your swing is perfect, you don’t need to change anything’. He gave me some other good advice, drawing on his own experiences, and saying I should never give up.
“One thing that he said really stuck in my mind – ‘you need your passions in golf, it’s a mind game’.”
The meeting was caught on video, with Sherpa initially appearing awestruck, but the admiration was by no means all one way. Woods says: “I’d read Sherpa’s story, so to get a chance to meet her was inspiring. I’ve now witnessed part of her journey, seen her energy and the happiness she exudes. We can all learn from that.”
He shared his encounter with Sherpa on social media. “What I call my ‘golf family’ in Nepal were so happy, because when he posted our meeting it was a big thing not only for me, but also for my country,” says Sherpa.
“People around the world got to know more about golf in Nepal, because some people simply don’t know it’s played there.”
Having celebrated her 20th birthday in November, Sherpa is studying public speaking, business, and English at Santa Barbara City College in California, and is due to graduate in December this year. She would be the first to acknowledge she has come a long way since thwacking a ball with a stick on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
The only daughter of two golf club maintenance workers, she was coached on what can definitely be described as her “home course” by sympathetic adults, entered her first tournament at the age of 11, and had won 33 trophies by the time she turned 17.
“My mum had tears in her eyes when I brought my first trophy home,” says Sherpa. “And after a while, my dad used to say that the organizers might as well hand me the trophy as soon as I turned up because I won so often.”
Sherpa’s achievement – in a mountainous country that is famously short of golf courses, and where players are mainly comparatively wealthy and predominantly male – is little short of miraculous.
It was back in 2016 that Sherpa’s career hit fast-forward. Oliver Horovitz, a US golfer visiting Kathmandu, was gobsmacked by the then teenager’s prowess.
“When I saw her play, I instantly thought ‘she’s got game’,” says Horovitz, who published his memoir An American Caddie in St. Andrews after a spell at Scotland’s best-known golf course. “In Nepal, it’s a pretty big deal for a lady to be playing golf – what she’s doing is important.”
Nepali society has traditionally frowned upon women taking on roles beyond keeping house and raising children, though there are some exceptions, including trail runner Mira Rai.
“What Sherpa is aspiring to do is almost impossible,” says Dr Bina Pradhan, a sociologist who set up the Centre for Women and Development, Nepal’s first NGO for women, in 1983. “The courage she shows in taking on [what in Nepal is] a male-dominated, elitist sport is remarkable.”
After meeting Sherpa, Horovitz launched a fundraiser and helped put together a short documentary, A Mountain to Climb, of her rise in the world of Nepali golf. As a result, a couple from Ventura, California, whose daughter was studying in Kathmandu, offered to sponsor Sherpa for a six-week visit so she could take a look at golf programs in the United States.
In July 2017, Sherpa boarded an aircraft for the first time, bound for the US. It was also the first time she had seen the sea. Along with other new experiences, including eating ice cream and learning to ride a bicycle, Sherpa was faced with a stunning array of 18-hole golf courses the length and breadth of California.
Besides taking part in competitions, Sherpa also got some expert instruction from Don Parsons, an instructor at Twin Lakes Golf Club in Santa Barbara.
“She absolutely loves the game,” he recalls. “The joy on her face when she hits a good one – it’s infectious.
“She’s a good player but not a great player yet. She needs to add 20 or 30 yards to her tee shots. It’s a big journey. She’ll do well, but it’s another step to Division 1 talent and beyond that to the Ladies Professional Golf Association.”
The time Sherpa spent in the US had an unexpected effect on her game. Having got used to immaculately tended, perfectly flat greens in California, when she returned to Kathmandu to take part in a professional qualifying tournament her deft, delicate putts were unsuited to the rough-and-ready surfaces of Nepal. She was the only woman up against 21 male wannabes – all of them bidding for just five professional slots – and the first woman ever to do so in Nepal.
Despite battling for three days, Sherpa finished in ninth place. After the awards ceremony, she walked home, took off her congratulatory garland of marigolds, wept for a while, then determinedly headed to the range to practice her drive in the twilight.
“My dad said to me that I’d tried my best so it didn’t matter how it ended and that there was no point in any regrets. After all, many people come to Nepal to climb mountains and don’t succeed,” says Sherpa, who recalls that when she first started to play seriously her father had objected strenuously, stating that golf was a game for rich people and she should concentrate on earning a living.
Sherpa returned to Santa Barbara in 2019, has got her handicap down to four, and plays on the City College golf team, which recently came fourth in the California state community college championships. She is now hoping to get a scholarship to cover her next four years at university and play National Collegiate Athletic Association golf.
“Sometimes it’s hard to live away from my parents but I do FaceTime with them every day, which makes it a little bit easier,” says Sherpa.
“They came over here for a visit, which was awesome, and I am flying back to Nepal to see them this summer. They’re getting older, and it’s my responsibility to take care of them. It’s quite a contrast between my hosts’ home in California and where my parents live in Kathmandu, but that shed by the Royal Nepal Golf Course is my lucky house. If I hadn’t lived there, I would not have learned how to play golf.
“Most of all, developing golf in Nepal is my true aim in life. I know it’s very difficult, but it’s not impossible. One day, I will make my country proud. Golf is my passion, and golf is my best friend. So whatever happens, I cannot lose.”
(with inputs from SCMP)