Golfer Pratima Sherpa is one step closer to her professional dreams

Paula Bronstein for ESPN

Pratima Sherpa is the first Nepali to play a Symetra Tour event.

Pratima Sherpa's drive from Santa Barbara to Beaumont, California, is about four hours, on highways and interstates, past strip malls and mountains, into the California desert.

Awaiting her is the unofficial start of her professional golfing career.

The 19-year-old amateur from Nepal was given a Symetra Tour sponsor's exemption to this weekend's IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa at the Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon.

For Sherpa, getting to this point hasn't been easy.

By now, Sherpa's story is well known. She grew up in a maintenance shed at Royal Nepal Golf Club, where she honed her craft on the short fairways and uneven greens of the nine-hole course. She first came to the United State in the summer of 2017, and returned this past January to live with the Montano family in Ventura, California.

Now, here she is, about to tee it up in her first professional tournament.

"I'm excited and a little nervous, too," Sherpa said. "This is a really big tournament for me. Not only for me, for my country, Nepal."

Sherpa has been preparing for this weekend without realizing it.

Since she returned to California a few months ago, she began practicing whenever she could, as much as she could. It didn't matter that California was getting unseasonable rain, or that the weather was unpredictable, Sherpa was practicing.

"I couldn't have practiced enough," she said.

And when she was invited to play in the IOA Championship, she tried to play even more.

"I was like, 'Oh, my god, I have to play ... no matter [if] it is raining or not,' " Sherpa said. "I give my best. So, I'm ready because I think you always have to be confident to play [a] tournament."

Sherpa's practice schedule has become fairly regimented since she began classes at Santa Barbara City College. She's taking public speaking, business, English and a swimming class. School, so far, is going well. But after her two years at SBCC are up, she's hoping a golf scholarship will land her at a four-year school.

First comes practice. Her classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving the rest of the week to do her homework and golf.

She predicted the nerves weren't going to hit her this week until her first practice round. Then the dream will start becoming a reality.

"It's one of my dreams to play on the LPGA Tour," she said. "... It's been so amazing, and I feel so lucky for me and for my country because I always wanted to develop golf in my country."

I'm excited and a little nervous, too. This is a really big tournament for me. Not only for me, for my country, Nepal.
Pratima Sherpa on her Symetra Tour debut

This weekend will be Sherpa's first test of how she's adapted to American-style golf.

In Nepal, she hits her drives about 235 yards due, in part, to the mountainous terrain of the courses. In the United States, her drives have dipped down to about 220 yards thanks to flatter fairways.

"In Nepal, I really don't have to think about the distance because it's a short hole," she said. "But here, I have to hit it up a lot [farther]."

Sherpa's largest adjustment, however, has been in her putting.

Back in Nepal, the greens are uneven and bumpy, so when she started putting in America, her taps would fly by the hole. She's spent a lot of time on her putting, including spending hours a day on the putting green at the LPGA's Bank of Hope Founders tournament getting used to a flat, smooth surface.

Other parts of life in America that have been different for Sherpa are the sheer number of golf courses available for her to play. She estimates there are about 20 to 25 around Santa Barbara, which have given her ample opportunities to play different styles of courses.

"I learned course management from the USA," she said. "Here, I learned how to manage the course, how to read the course, because in Nepal I'm used to that course."

Being ready for a course, however, is just one part of tackling a tournament. The other is handling the pressure. There will be plenty of that in Beaumont.

She's already a well-known face in golf, and her story has been told countless times, so Sherpa knows she'll have plenty of eyes on her on every hole.

To handle the pressure, she looks to her mentor, Tiger Woods.

She first met Woods in April 2018, in Florida. The two talked and hit some balls on the range. He told some stories about how he got into golf and explained how he handles pressure in various situations.

Sherpa still has a photo of her and Woods as the background on her phone.

She saw him again in February at the PGA Tour's Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California. Sherpa followed Woods for a round and was watching him do an interview when he spotted her.

"'Oh, hi Pratima,' " she recalled Woods saying. "I was like, 'Oh, my god.' He asked, 'How is your game?' And I said, 'I'm starting in Santa Barbara City College.' He said, 'No way,' [and] I said, 'Yes, way.'

"He said, 'Can you give an interview for me?' That was amazing."

This weekend is one of the reasons she came to America, to chase her dream of playing on the LPGA Tour. The IOA Championship is a start. Her start.

Sherpa isn't setting a score she wants to hit because she doesn't want to "discourage myself."

"So, my expectation is to just learn new experiences" she said. "... I'm looking to get a new experience from that, and I will do my best."

America has been kind to Sherpa. Her favorite part about being in the United States?

"Honestly, it's golf courses," she said, breaking out into a laugh.

So, which course does she still want to play but hasn't yet?

"Pebble Beach," she said. "I haven't been to Pebble Beach, but I really want to play there."

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