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The World's Most Dangerous 18 Holes
  • November 01, 2012 : 07:11
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After dinner Mr. Liu led us to a firing range. “Don’t worry. We won’t be shooting you,” he said. The range was a warren of half-lit channels with bull’s-eye targets at one end and trigger-happy golfers at the other. There was nothing virtual about this first-person shooter game. Pretty girls handed out small-bore .22 rifle shells in brass casings. Unnerved at the thought of using live ammo—we could spin around and slaughter Simon!—we spent the first few minutes shooting walls and floor.

I liked my wood-stock rifle better than my putter. Placing the sight on a bull’s-eye 55 yards away, I sipped a breath, held it and squeezed the trigger. The bullet struck the target a couple of inches off-line. My next shot was closer. My last bullet drilled a hole in the bull’s-eye. Damned if I wasn’t going to finish first in something in this hemisphere.

“Perfect,” Mr. Liu said. “Good shooting for an American.”

The pistol was another story. You can’t brace a handgun against your shoulder. You have to aim it in your outstretched hand. None of my shots hit near the bull’s-eye.

“Let me try,” Mr. Liu said.

Our minder was 30 years old, with sharp cheekbones and dark, watchful eyes. Officially a tour guide, he was also a representative of his government, trained for mental and physical excellence, and this was the first favor he’d asked in a week of looking after us.

“Sure thing.” I handed him the gun. Mr. Liu shut one eye and squeezed off a round. He missed the bull’s-eye by half an inch.

“Almost,” I said.

He fired again. A little higher.


Two more shots left two more holes, evenly spaced half an inch off the bull’s-eye. At this point I quit talking. I was catching on. Mr. Liu squeezed off three more rounds, completing a ring of bullet holes around the bull’s-eye. Then he gave me a look that said, Sometimes I get tired of watching you pampered fucks screw around in my country. Maybe his look meant something only he knew, but the general point crossed the DMZ between us. He was more than a tour guide.

Next he led us to an outdoor enclosure. “Here you shoot chicken.” Sure enough, a man scooting past with a squirming bundle released two birds, a rooster and a hen, into a dirt-walled enclosure 50 yards away. “Five euros per shot,” Mr. Liu said. A premium price to put our live ammo in live animals.

Nobody moved. Finally Josh tossed his bucket hat aside. “You wusses!” Hoisting a rifle, he asked how many of us were vegans. He put the rifle sight on the cock’s red chest and pulled the trigger. But he chickened out, purposely shooting high. A warning shot, he called it.

The tour bus waited, air-conditioned and karaoke-ready. During the ride to the hotel the Brits used the karaoke mike to regale us with their version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Jesus can’t play rugby cuz his dad would rig the game./Jesus can’t play rugby cuz his hands are full o’ holes./Jesus can’t play rugby cuz his crown would burst the ball./Jesus saves, Jesus saves, Jesus saves!”

And then Miss Song surprised us by taking the mike. After a moment of looking at her shoes she began a slow lament for a lost love. Two lovers belonged together, the song went, but were apart for so long that their hearts were torn in half. Eyes shining, she explained that the song was about the two Koreas. The bus went quiet. Maybe the party line about reunification had been drilled into Miss Song since girlhood, and maybe she knew little or nothing of the world beyond this blinkered country whose bosses spent billions on nuclear weapons while hungry citizens huddled in the dark. But she meant what she sang. Her patriotism made a busful of half-drunk cynics give her a round of applause.

“You da mandrill! Da manicurist. Da Mandingo.”

I had the Mongolians heckling the Brits.

“You da mammogram!”

Too late. Simon was home free. Somebody asked Josh, who’d shot 77 in the second round and lost ground, what he’d need to shoot today in order to win. “I’d have to shoot Simon,” he said. And if Simon made a wobbly target after draining enough Taedonggangs to make the state-run brewery step up production, he was no wobblier than most of us. We’d closed the bar at four a.m. and gathered four hours later.

With everyone but Simon playing for booby prizes, we swung with abandon on the last day. Sun-Yi learned to say, “Good bogey!”

After scrounging a Mongolian zero at the 17th I needed a third straight par on the par-five 18th to shoot a third straight 90. The definition of bogey golf. To Emerson, foolish consistency was the bogey of little minds, but to me it was a goal that could make or break my week in North Korea. My excuse is that there are only about 1,000 freaks on earth who can really play golf. The rest of us are out for small victories: a career-best round, a winning bet, a par on the last hole.

Sun-Yi marked my ball on the 18th green. She cleaned the ball, replaced it and swooped her arms to show how the putt would break.

A short sidehill putt. Sink it and I could doff my cap and shake hands all around. Miss it and I would have to picture and repicture this five-foot putt during the long ride back to the hotel, tomorrow’s flight to Shenyang, the trip to and a four-hour layover in Seoul, a 15-hour flight over the Arctic to JFK and the rest of my miserable life.

“You can moik it,” Kiwi said.

Five feet. I’d have to hit it hard. I took a breath and fired. When I looked up the putt was a foot from the hole, losing speed like a North Korean rocket.

We sang Mongolian drinking songs in a clubhouse strewn with beer cans. Simon, posing with the trophy, smiled while we hurled cracks at him. Kiwi handed out breath mints from his factory. The second secretary, who’d fired a net 55 to finish second, called for order. He nodded to Chuluun Munkhbat, who held a bottle of Chinggis vodka.

“Mongolian spirit,” Munkhbat called it. Pouring a shot for Simon and one for himself, he toasted the victor, saying he’d see him again “with lower handicap!” Then he went around the room, dispensing a shot and a few words for each player. Fully toasty by the time he got to me, he called me a name that made me forget my putt on the last hole. Chuluun Munkhbat, son of Chuluun of Ulaanbaatar, a descendant of Genghis Khan, touched his shot glass to mine.

“See you again,” he said, “golf brother.”

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read more: sports, entertainment, magazine, golf, issue november 2012