"I Shot 120 And My Caddie Told Me I'd Brought Great Shame To My Family" – An Extraordinary Tale Of Golf In North Korea

Golf in North Korea does exist, and the country even hosts international events

pyongyang golf
Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can You Play Golf In North Korea?

Golf in North Korea is perhaps best known for an alleged round by the Kim Jong-Il when he officially opened the Pyongyang golf course in 1987. He was at the time the son of the country’s dictator, and was to become the dictator himself on his father’s death. This course is a par-72 layout of about 6,800 yards. It was reported that Kim Jong-Il made five holes-in-one and went round in a total of 34 shots. (Subsequently the story has morphed into him making 11 holes-in-one, and it being his first game of golf.)

Call me a cynical old hack if you like, but I suspect these five holes-in-one may not have happened. Three theories exist. One is that it was simply a tale made up by dastardly Westerners to ridicule the future Dear Leader. The second is that is was state propaganda by North Korea. If so, this seems a bit pointless as virtually no-one in North Korea knows what golf is let alone have the foggiest idea what a hole in one is. The third is that the information was misinterpreted.

This third explanation relates to the lack of knowledge of North Koreans about golf, and that Kim Jong-Il actually went round in 34 over par, not 34 shots. The scorer recorded the scores relative to par, so his five holes in one were in fact five bogeys. This still strains the edges of believability – a round of 106 by a man in his late 40s unfamiliar with the game. But with the generous deployment of Mulligans and in the awarding of gimmies – and lets face it, who was going to him a gimmie if he asked for it – it could be do-able. Perhaps.

Pyongyang is the only public golf course in North Korea, and the only course that officially exists. It is laid out beside Taicheng Lake, 17 miles from Pyongyang City. Officially around 40 rounds a day are played here, but, based on the testimony of those who have played and visited here, this seems an overestimate. Those few who play here are mainly diplomats and Chinese ex pats.

Pyongyang golf course, North Korea GettyImages-1244118666

Players take on Pyongyang Golf Course near the nation's capital

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Foreigners are welcome to play here, albeit the welcome is a typical North Korean one of man-to-man marking by guides throughout your stay in the country and closely controlled itineraries of what you are taken to, and allowed, to see. The club has even hosted international amateur events to which the world is invited. Well, not quite all the world: Americans and South Koreans are excluded from this invitation.

For the most recent holding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Amateur Golf Open, in 2016, 18 different nationalities entered. This event had been held annually since 2011 but has lapsed, although it is hoped to resume it in 2024. The six previous Opens have been won by golfers from Finland, UK, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Poland.

Perhaps the most noteworthy entrants in 2016 were the Australian duo of Morgan Ruig and Evan Shay. The 28-year-olds heard about the event while in Beijing and somehow managed to enter the competition, posing as very accomplished golfers.

They represented Australia and wore green blazers with their national flag on and even placed a bouquet of flowers at a monument dedicated to North Korea's leaders as part of their tour of Pyongyang.

"We were very nervous handing our passports over at the border. There are stories of people not coming home," Mr Ruig told the Courier-Mail newspaper.

"I hit 120 and my caddy told me I had bought great shame to my family. We played very poorly... but we met some very interesting people."

Roderick Easdale

Contributing Writer Golf courses and travel are Roderick’s particular interests and he was contributing editor for the first few years of the Golf Monthly Travel Supplement. He writes travel articles and general features for the magazine, travel supplement and website. He also compiles the magazine's crossword. He is a member of Trevose Golf & Country Club and has played golf in around two dozen countries. Cricket is his other main sporting love. He is the author of five books, four of which are still in print: The Novel Life of PG Wodehouse; The Don: Beyond Boundaries; Wally Hammond: Gentleman & Player and England’s Greatest Post-War All Rounder.