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Golfing in the Clouds

By: David Wood


My initial glimpse at the mountainside metropolis of La Paz time won’t be leaving my memory anytime soon. With its highest elevation at a dizzying 15,000 feet, La Paz clings precariously to a broad steep canyon on the side of the Bolivian Andes. The city cascades four miles straight downhill. Two million Bolivians live rim-to-rim while sticking to the bowl-shaped ledge like Spiderman on the side of the Empire State Building. If one building at the top started to tumble, it looks as if the whole city would crumble like a house of cards.

In La Paz, you’re walking either uphill or downhill. Hardly ideal golfing land; there’s not a level lie to be found.

Golf first came to La Paz in 1911 when British engineers came to build roads and bridges through the Andes. They also built a nine-hole course in El Alto, the highest point in La Paz. That course is gone today and is now home to the city’s airport. The current La Paz Golf Club was built a mile southwest of El Alto. It was designed in 1948 by locals and expatriates wanting a new home to play the ancient game.

There is controversy about which course is the world’s most elevated. The British built several rudimentary courses as they traveled the Andes, including the nine-hole Tuctu Golf Club in Peru at 14,335 above sea level, which, like La Paz Golf Club, once boasted being the highest in the world. However, Tuctu was abandoned in the 1990s and is said to be unrecognizable as a course today except for overgrown grasses and weeds. So the honor falls to the going concern at La Paz Golf Club, situated at 10,880 feet.

Because of the severe altitude, it took me a few days to acclimatize myself before playing at the pinnacle of the golfing world. My trip to La Paz coincided with a worsening political situation in Bolivia. Violent uprisings against the government had been bloody, with 75 people killed in a clash the week before my arrival. The unfed but fed-up peasants had staged a nationwide strike that paralyzed the government and forced the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Sanchez de Lozada had installed a free-market economy. But the peasants watched as Bolivia’s plentiful oil and minerals flowed out of their country without any of the promised “trickle-down” of the revenues coming back to them.

With an average yearly income of just over $900 per year, Bolivians are the poorest people in South America. They finally had had enough of the one-sided economy. Protesters set-up improvised road-blocks with boulders and fires of burning tires to make travel into and out of Bolivia difficult. The roadblocks were telling the government that commerce couldn’t enter or leave the country without the consent of the demonstrators. I can attest personally that theirs was a good argument as my bus ride into La Paz from Arica, Chile, was continually diverted over bone-jarring back roads that tripled the travel time to the troubled city.

Though hardly level, La Paz Golf Club rests on the only fairly flat spot of land I came across in the city. The course sits at the southern end of La Paz and abuts the dramatic Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Valle de la Luna is a badlands of hills and rocks eroded into bizarre shapes and deep gullies that does indeed look lunar. As my taxi traversed the series of steep switchbacks leading to the course, I saw neither a blade of grass nor any ground even capable of sprouting life, let alone enough elbow room to strike a golf ball.

We passed through the armed-guarded gate protecting the entrance – ubiquitous in South American golf, and entered the grounds of the surprisingly lush La Paz Golf Club. As we pulled up the clubhouse, a dozen caddies made a mad dash to help me with my bag and hopefully secure a loop for the day.

There was only one other car in the parking lot, so the chance of earning pesos that day was competitive. The winning caddie was Gonzalo Reynaldo Ballion, a 25-year-old golf fanatic with a shy, quiet manner like most Bolivians. Though he looked hardly old enough to shave, Gonzalo was married with two children. Gonzalo was trying to learn English. As we went around the course, he kept having me quiz him on the days of the week and counting to 10 in my native tongue. He had me do the same in Spanish as he, in turn, quizzed me. I found out that Gonzalo was learning a much quicker pace.

The first hole is a challenging 406-yard par-4 that climbs to a small, oval green perched atop the highest point of the course, 10,964 feet. Though the ascent is gradual, I huffed and puffed as if scaling the North Face of Mount Everest. After catching a breath at the summit of the second tee box, the course then plays downhill all the way to the excellent 167-yard par-3 14th, which has a captivating view of the volatile topography of the Valle de la Luna. With the gnarled nooks and twisted crannies of the canyon looking as if Salvador Dali had a hand in their design, it has to be the harshest and most surreal looking out-of-bounds in the game.

Being surrounded by the biscuit-brown fissures of the Valle de la Luna makes the oasis of green turf and shady oak trees lining the fairways stand out vibrantly. Stretching 6,600 yards from the tips, but with scarce molecules of oxygen impeding the flight of shots, a golfer can drive distances through the paper-thin air like Tiger Woods – at least for a day.

The course was in excellent shape, even though most of the grounds-keeping is done without the benefit of machinery. Gonzalo and I shared several tees with groups of cheerful Bolivian ladies sitting in semi-circles and weeding crabgrass by hand. The women all wore flowing, traditional multi-colored skirts as well as the brown derby that sits jauntily eschew on the noggin of almost every Bolivian woman you see. Similar to a Charlie Chaplin bowler, the hats are worn at a funny angle like a tea-cup sitting on a roof of an A-frame home. Though the hats teeter precariously, a tornado couldn’t knock them off their heads.

There was only one other golfer playing the course when I visited, and I joined up with him on the back nine. Alex Morales, a local golf-lover who learned the game while attending college in England, is a professor of business management at a local university. We strolled along playing our shots and chatting as I asked him about the political turmoil. He said unequivocally, “I’m all for the current demonstrations. The way this government goes about its business just isn’t fair to its citizens. We simply have too many poor people!”

Alex said that he felt golf is a great economic indicator for the financial well-being of a country. The more golf courses a country has, the more prosperity there is. “I hope the next time you come back to visit us here in Bolivia we have golf everywhere.”

I hope so as well.

David Wood – writer, corporate speaker, and humorist – is the author of the soon-to-be published book “Around the World in Eighty Rounds.” With several appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” Wood combines humor with his love for golf and adventurous travel. For comments or inquiries on having him speak to your group, contact David at David@DavidWoodSpeaking.com. His website address is www.golferdave.com.