KATHMANDU: Pratima Sherpa grew up in a small hut behind the third hole of the Royal Nepal Golf Course — now she is tipped to be the country’s first female golf professional.
The petite 18-year-old is the daughter of labourers who work on the nine-hole golf course, which lies at the end of the runway of Kathmandu’s international airport.
Golf is a sport usually associated with privilege, while Nepal is a country better known for its jagged Himalayan peaks than smooth golf greens.
But those who have watched Sherpa play say she has what it takes to compete and win internationally, and make it to the hallowed US-based Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour.
“In two to three years if she can go out of the country she has the opportunity to reach the Europe Tour, America,” said Tashi Ghale, general secretary of the Nepal Golf Association.
“Hopefully she will be the first Nepalese lady to compete with the LGPA.”
Sherpa was raised in a hut shared with lawn mowers, maintenance equipment and a few goats, and first started playing with a stick, copying the golfers she saw around her on the course.
“I would play with kids of other workers. We used to watch people play golf and mimic them with wooden sticks. We would ask for balls and hit them,” Sherpa told AFP.
At the age of 11, coach Sachin Prasad Bhattarai spotted her during a juniors programme run by the club.
Recognising what he describes as a natural talent, Bhattarai offered to start coaching her for free and persuaded a club member to give Sherpa an old set of clubs.
‘She has that art’
“She strikes with her feel. She can do it. Not many people have that in golf,” said Bhattarai.
“People have technique, and we guarantee that a person with a good golf swing will hit well… but not everyone has the art. She has that art.”
Her parents were initially reluctant to let her play, thinking she’d be out of place as a girl and from a humble background.
“Only rich people’s kids would come to play so I didn’t want to send her. Her studies would suffer,” said her father Pasang Tsering Sherpa, who met Pratima’s mother working at the golf course.
Sherpa is now a daily sight on the course, though her routine was briefly interrupted when it was turned into a refugee camp after an earthquake devastated swathes of Nepal in April 2015.
She practises under the watchful eye of Bhattarai every morning for two hours before taking the bus to school.
The small hut she still shares with her parents is crowded with more than 30 trophies from tournament victories in Nepal.
The next step is to compete internationally and she has qualified twice for the Faldo Series China championship — an amateur tournament series for young players which helped launch the careers of men’s world number two Rory McIlroy and Tseng Ya-Ni, the former top-ranked woman.
But Sherpa has been unable to take part so far because she doesn’t have a passport.
In Nepal, citizenship is passed from father to child, and Sherpa’s father, who thinks he’s about 56, doesn’t have a birth certificate.
Sherpa’s supporters have been lobbying the government to get her a passport and are confident they are on the brink of overcoming the country’s notorious bureaucracy.
One member of the Royal Nepal Golf Club, a US citizen, even offered to adopt Sherpa to help her get an American passport — an offer she politely declined.
“I didn’t want to leave my ageing parents… I felt things would eventually work out,” she says glancing over at her modest home where her mother is tending to the goats.
“I want to (play) for my own country.”
At the third hole, Sherpa lines up a putt and with a gentle stroke the ball rolls into the cup.
“If I am successful, I want to return to where I started learning and help others like me who can’t take up this sport because it is expensive,” she added.