Unlikely golfers swing at world's highest course

LA PAZ (Reuters) - When she isn’t trimming the greens or fumigating bushes and trees at the world’s highest golf course Marta Mamani grabs her rusty clubs and practices her swing with wealthy Bolivian golf enthusiasts.

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Mamani is a Bolivian indigenous woman known as a “cholita” who wears the traditional dress of a layered skirt, a shawl and a felt bowler hat.

While cholitas have made inroads into the Bolivian government and many are powerful business entrepreneurs in their communities, they must fight a stereotype as market women and maids, so it is unusual to see them hitting balls at a ritzy golf club.

“Club members come from the country’s elite,” says head greenskeeper Fermin Nina.

Fees run as high as $8,000 to join the club plus $75 a month, a fortune in the poorest country in South America.

But like all employees at the Mallasilla club, at 11,000 feet above sea level with a view of snowcapped Andes mountains, Mamani and her three cholita co-workers are allowed to play free of charge.

“I’ve been working here for 23 years, and I’ve been playing golf six or seven years,” says Mamani, a gardener, standing next to a golf hole dubbed the “Moon Hole” amid a maze of intricate canyons, and flanked by cactus plants and eucalyptus trees.

A mother of two, Mamani carries her balls in a plastic bag and her rusty clubs bundled together with an elastic band on top of her shoulder.

When she hits the ball her two long braids fly over her straw hat and her bright skirt swirls against the backdrop of the snowy mountains.

“No one in my village plays golf, they do not know what golf is about,” says Mamani through her gold-filled teeth.

Discrimination against cholitas is common in La Paz and some of them complain they are not allowed in cafes and restaurants because they are Indian, even though most people in Bolivia are of indigenous descent.

Mamani says she is treated fairly at Mallasilla and earns $129 a month, compared with the official minimum wage of $82 per month. All workers at the club are given free golf lessons to help them understand how to take care of the course.

Some of the clubs Mamani uses were given to her by club members as gifts to encourage her to play. She uses the lost balls she finds.

“I used to win tournaments, but ... I don’t play as well now,” she says.

But some workers and golf trainers say the cholitas play better than most.

“Generally, when they play against club members they win,” says Nina, the greenskeeper.

Editing by Kevin Gray and Vicki Allen