It’s Wednesday, April 18, and I’m walking through Central Park with a (very jet-lagged) 18-year-old Pratima Sherpa, the No. 1 female golfer in Nepal. Pratima landed at JFK Airport this morning, after 24-hours of non-stop travel from Kathmandu. She looks around. “Are there monkeys in Central Park?” I look at Pratima. “Well … yes, but they’re in a zoo.”
Pratima’s question makes sense. At Royal Nepal Golf Club, hundreds of monkeys roam the fairways. Members use old balls, since monkeys mistake new ones for eggs. I know this because I spent a month in Nepal in May 2016, with friends Miles Ashton and Vladimir Weinstein. And Pratima knows, because despite being the No. 1 female golfer in Nepal, she lives in a shed on the fourth hole of Royal Nepal Golf Club.
I met Pratima on that trip in 2016 and was blown away by both her spirit and her game. Her hero is Tiger Woods. Her dream is to become Nepal’s first female golf professional. And her parents are both workers at Royal Nepal, making a combined $19 a month. Pratima was 11 when she was discovered by a Royal Nepal pro and given lessons. Soon, Pratima was winning tournaments and working with a kindly Nepali instructor, Sachin Bhattarai. Every day, Pratima practices. In the monsoon rains, she practices.
I wrote a story on Pratima for Golf Digest, and together with Miles and Vlad, started a fundraiser for Pratima. An American family, the Montanos, saw the fundraiser, and hosted Pratima in Ventura, Calif., for six weeks. ESPN began filming a documentary about Pratima. Two months ago, it got into the Tribeca Film Festival. ESPN arranged to fly Pratima to New York City for the premiere. And so, amazingly, here we are, with Nepal’s No. 1 female golfer standing in Zabar’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, eating a bagel.
It takes a village. And Zabar’s coffee.
ESPN has Pratima staying at the swanky NYLO Hotel on 77th and Broadway (featuring running water and electricity). When I meet Pratima there on Thursday, she’s already in the lobby, on a video-chat with her parents. Pasang and Kalpana were up at 1:30 a.m., Kathmandu-time, to see their daughter. Pratima offers me an ear bud, and I jump in for a quick “Namaste!” It is unavoidably bittersweet. Pasang and Kalpana were supposed to join Pratima on this trip, but their visas were rejected. Now, they can only watch Pratima on a tiny cellphone screen, 7,500 miles away. They smile and tell her, “We are so proud of you!” But I know their hearts are breaking. All they want is to be here as well, for the most important week of their young daughter’s life. Instead, they watch from the dimly lit shed, fight back tears, and tell their daughter how much they love her.
It’s Saturday afternoon, Pratima’s Film Festival premiere. The Montanos, Pratima’s host family, have flown in. So have many others. This is what Pratima does. She connects people. She makes them feel happy. She radiates peace, innocence. Hope. Which is to say, she inspires us all to be better people.
At the theater, Pratima is pulled onto the red carpet for pictures. I think about how well Pratima is handling all of this. How overwhelming this must all be for her. I mean, she was in the shed four days ago. Now she’s here—on the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival. And her smile shines brighter than the lights.
After the film, I see my friend David Fontanilla in the lobby. I’ve invited him because he knows Pratima’s story well. He’s a Tiger Woods Foundation donor and was the first person I told about Pratima after my trip. Through David, Tiger read the Golf Digest article and wrote a letter to Pratima, now framed and sitting in Pratima’s shed. It’s her most cherished possession. It’s also the closest Pratima thought she would ever come to her hero.
I go up to my friend and shake his hand, “Did you like the film?” David has clearly been crying. He looks very moved. What he says next will alter the course of Pratima’s young life, yet again:
“I’m heading to Florida tomorrow for Tiger’s Foundation event. We have to get Pratima there, too.”
Pratima is standing at a quiet part of Medalist Golf Club.
She is waiting for Tiger.
“I’m so excited to meet him!” Pratima says to me, giggling. “It’s like a dream,” she says, then she thinks for a second. “No, it’s not a dream!”
These last two days have been a whirlwind. David texted Rick Singer, who asked Tiger about meeting Pratima. Tiger said yes. David booked flights for Pratima and her host-sister Sophia. And now here we are, watching Pratima wait for her hero.
“I have to take a breath,” Pratima laughs, trying to calm herself.
And then, a cart appears as Pratima is watching. As the cart comes towards us, it can only be one person. In that moment, I think about the shed, and Pratima hitting 5-irons in torrential rain. About her parents changing pins every morning at Royal Nepal. And if there were any doubt that if you work hard enough, dreams can come true, those doubts evaporate in this exact moment … as Tiger Woods pulls up, and utters the single coolest word I have ever heard from someone’s lips: “Pratima!!!!”
“Hi Tiger!!!!” Pratima runs up to the cart. Tiger jumps out with a huge smile on his face, and the two bear-hug. Pratima looks up at Tiger, at her hero. Ten feet away, everybody is crying. I have two heroes: Tiger Woods … and Pratima Sherpa.
Ten hours later, Pratima, Sophia and I are back in New York just in time for Pratima’s final Tribeca screening—Pratima’s bag stuffed with signed Tiger hats and flags. The screening has ended. Everybody now stands in the lobby. Tomorrow morning, Pratima flies back to Kathmandu. The next night, Pratima will sleep inside her shed.
“So much has changed from 2016 to 2018,” Pratima says to me. It has … and it hasn’t. She’s still in the shed. I think about how terribly strange this is going to be for Pratima when she gets back. From the red carpet at Tribeca … a lesson from Tiger Woods … how can somebody then go back to the shed? I give Pratima my own Tiger bear hug. “I’m so proud of you,” I say, trying not to cry. This September, Pratima will play in Nepali Q School. Her dream continues. And this week for Pratima—from Tribeca to Tiger Woods—has been life-changing.
In the land of Everest, Pratima continues to climb the mountain. She will not stop.
To help support Pratima, go to TeamPratima.com