On day one of the open we breakfasted on fried eggs, strong coffee and kimchi, the national pickled-cabbage dish, then piled into a tour bus for the drive to the most exclusive golf course in North Korea. Because it’s the only golf course in North Korea.
We doped out the tournament on the way. Wisecracking Josh, the Golf Magazine mole, was the foremost golfer in a field full of whack-a-mole hacks. Then there was Antti from Finland, a lanky blond engineer with 300-yard power. He might be a threat. The same went for bearded, beery Simon from London. His mate Alex, a garrulous journo from one of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids, swung like he was fending off subpoenas, but Simon could flip a flop shot like Phil Mickelson. His 36 handicap was fishier than sushi.
Aussie Mike’s fluid swing got leaky under pressure. Fifty-year-old Kiwi, a genial chop from New Zealand, wouldn’t break 100. I was a long shot with no short game, a once-decent 80-shooter who hadn’t made a 10-foot putt since 2010. And nobody knew what to think of the Mongolian foursome, who dressed like tour pros. They’d learned the game by watching a David Leadbetter DVD.
The 20-mile ride to Pyongyang Golf Club took an hour. There was no traffic in the smog-shrouded capital, where only party leaders have cars. The deserted eight-lane boulevard was pocked with potholes that forced our bus driver to pick his way forward like a man in a minefield. We passed work crews tending rice paddies and cabbage fields. Old women bent under the weight of water buckets hanging from yokes strapped to their backs. Workers stopped to glance at our bus. We were a novelty, a bunch of foreign guys in golf caps rolling by in air-conditioned splendor.
The clubhouse at Pyongyang Golf Club is a green-gabled hulk on top of a hill. It was dim inside. A painting showing Kim Il Sung greeting world leaders filled one wall, but it was hard to make out the details. Here as elsewhere lights stayed off during the day to conserve electricity. As our eyes adjusted we beheld a row of white-gloved young women in lavender uniforms. Clearly chosen for their looks, our caddies could have passed for Korean Air flight attendants. They had little training as caddies and spoke next to no English. Mine, the beaming Sun-Yi, could say “iron seven,” “wood one,” “good sha” and “caddie fee 10 euro.” Determined to prove herself, she insisted on marking and cleaning my ball even on the practice green.
“Attention, s’il vous plaît.” That was Maxime, the tournament director. Plump, silver-haired Maxime, a former PGA European Tour rules official who had made Ryder Cup rulings for Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros, would take no guff from the sorry likes of us. Rather than stroke play or match play, he announced, we would play the first round by the Callaway scoring system.
“First on the tee will be…Mr. Cook from America!”
I hadn’t hit a golf ball in six months. There was no driving range; I was jet-lagged, surprised, with no time to concoct an excuse to let somebody else hit. Sun-Yi handed me a gleaming Top-Flite and a tee. Photographers from the Associated Press and North Korea’s Ministry of Sport crouched beside the tee marker to record my opening shot. Josh strolled past with a word of encouragement. “Better you than me, dude,” he said.
I took a practice stab. Swing easy, I thought. Rotate hips and shoulders over the left knee. Or is it the right knee? Don’t think. Above all don’t think about dribbling a grounder off in news photos worldwide. Or whiffing.
At the top of my swing, the ball looked like Pluto. The next sound surprised me: polite applause. My ball climbed over the fairway as Sun-Yi reached for my clubs. “Good sha!” she said.
“The 2012 Democratic People’s Republic et cetera, et cetera is under way,” Maxime said.
On the green, Sun-Yi went into her elaborate ball-marking ceremony. Stooping at the knees, she marked my ball with a one-won coin, cleaned the ball and cupped it in her hands as if it were a robin’s egg. When my turn to putt came she replaced the ball, studied my line to the hole, then showed how the putt would break with a swooping motion of her arms. I pictured my Top-Flite swooping into the cup. Instead it died on the way. The greens were seeded with a strain of grass that seemed to exude glue.
Above: A snapshot with “golf brother” Chuluun MunkHbat, a Mongolian lawyer WITH A KILLER SHORT GAME.
“Five,” I told my playing partner, a Mongolian lawyer named Chuluun Munkhbat. “How about you?” Per Maxime’s instructions we were keeping each other’s scores, just like tour pros.
“One,” he said.
“Funny! For a second I thought you said one.”
I’d watched him make bogey. Maybe this was golf in the Kimdom—we all knew about Kim Jong Il’s 11 aces and “official” score of 38 under par in his first round of golf. I wouldn’t be party to a third-world plot to bust the records of the old Scottish game. “Mr. Chuluun, you didn’t have a hole-in-one,” I said.
“Yes, one. Like you.”
It took a minute of batting phrases through the language barrier to figure out that Mongolia’s golfers, all 50 or 60 of them, keep score by recording how many strokes over par they shoot on each hole. A bogey’s a one, a double bogey a two.
We shook hands. “Mr. Chuluun, let’s make some zeroes.”
His face lit up. “Call me Munkhbat.”
He zeroed both par-three holes on the front nine. I zeroed the par-fives. Feeling jaunty as we made the turn, I expected a hot dog at a halfway house but got a multicourse meal instead. In a dining hall at the top of a rickety staircase, where a boxy RCA TV showed ranks of marching soldiers, silent waitresses served bean sprouts in soy sauce, thin-sliced pork, steaming dumplings, crunchy whitefish, rice curry, kimchi, clams, mushrooms in peanut paste and peas with orange and purple tendrils of something or other. We washed it down with ice-cold Tiger beer, the Singaporean lager featured in Tropic Thunder. Londoner Alex had us hip-hooraying our hosts until he noticed the numbers stamped on the bottom of his beer can.
“Two fowsin’ ten?”
All our beers were past their expiration dates. Importing stale beer helps North Korea fight its trade deficit, which the regime blames on American sanctions.
Alex held his Tiger beer aloft. “Drink up, lads,” he said, “before it’s too late!”
Munkhbat and I waddled to the 10th tee with bellies full of Tigers. We spent much of the afternoon up to our knees in the course’s jungly rough. Two hours later I limped in with a round of 90. Bogey golf.
Maxime collected scorecards. By his reckoning, given our handicaps and some strange rules that made no sense at all, my 90 was worse than Munkhbat’s 102. I’d shot my way to second-to-last place with the second-best score of the day. Our leader was Simon. Alex offered his countryman a toast. “To Simon. Cunt-gratulations!”
In the evening our minders led the way to the Pyongyang Circus. A live orchestra accompanied acrobats and dancing bears while the crowd—mostly soldiers—applauded in unison as if keeping time to music. We golfers cheered the waltzing, rope-skipping bears and went wild for the feature attraction, a baboon that roller-skated down a slide to the stage, where he leaped and dunked a basketball.
Celtics fan Josh yawned. “Big deal. Nobody was guarding him.”
Back at the Yanggakdo, the state-sponsored TV channel was running a nature documentary. In one sequence a colony of ants encountered a stream. The ants formed a raft, a squiggling Frisbee-size mass of themselves, and floated into the water. The ones on the bottom drowned, but the others made it across. I wanted to yell, “Korean ants, save yourselves!” What would the electronic ears in the walls make of that? Instead I did push-ups and practiced my putting. Let them listen to grunts and groans.
Day two brought a new scoring plan called the Stableford system in which double bogeys and worse don’t hurt your score. My new playing partner, Kiwi, the genial duffer from New Zealand, said he ran a candy factory in China. “Guess what’s one of our top items,” he said, pronouncing it “oitems.”
I guessed candy.
“Edible underwear! Quoit popular with the Choinese. We also make a gummy dildo.”
After a bouncy nine and another multicourse lunch, we joined the others at the 10th tee for a long-drive contest. I set the pace until the second guy hit. Antti, the tall Finn, thumped one 310 yards but was DQ’d by Maxime when his ball ran into the rough, leaving the 40-euro pot to Simon for his 300-yarder.
I needed to par the long 18th hole to stay alive in the tournament. My three-wood second shot bounced into sticky rough a hundred yards from the green. “You moit tike a drop,” Kiwi clucked. But I hadn’t flown 8,000 miles and surrendered my cell phone to play for sixes. I took an iron seven and slashed. Leaves and roots flew. Sun-Yi covered her eyes. The ball blooped into a gully short of the green. My chip ran past the hole. My putt rifled off the back of the tin cup, popped straight up and fell in. “Nice pa!” Sun-Yi chimed. We shook hands, a folded 10-euro bill passing from my hand to hers. Ten euros, equal to about $13, was a windfall for Sun-Yi, who probably gave it to her father when she got home. If he’s a typical worker, her father earns about $21 a week.
Maxime, tallying scores in the clubhouse, promised to decipher his rankings in time for tomorrow’s final round. Simon looked unbeatable with his 30-plus handicap and net scores in the 50s. Dinner was sizzling beef at North Korea’s number one restaurant. That’s its name: Restaurant Number 1. Picking strips of meat off steaming hibachis, we dipped them in soy and mustard sauces. Until Mr. Liu mentioned that we weren’t eating beef.
Two dozen chopsticks stopped in midair. Kiwi, who knew his way around East Asia, said we moit be foinding a new meaning for dogleg.
Mr. Liu said, “Duck!” Aussie Mike ducked his head as if dodging a bullet. “It’s duck,” Mr. Liu repeated.