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Behind Kim Jong Il’s Famous Round of Golf

June 1, 2016

With the U.S. Open fast approaching at a famously penal course in the Pittsburgh area, I’d like to set the record straight on one of history’s most astounding rounds of golf, an achievement so outlandish it could pass as myth.

No, I’m not thinking what you think I’m thinking, which should come as a relief, since Johnny Miller’s closing 63 at Oakmont in 1973 has been picked over to death.

The round I have in mind took place in a setting far more punishing than any Open venue, and the 18-hole tally makes Miller’s sizzling score look like a number posted by a weekend chop. I’m referring to—what else?—the 38-under-par 34 reportedly fired by the late North Korean despot Kim Jong Il, a man known to his people as Dear Leader and to you and me as Dear Top-the-Leader Board. According to official North Korean state accounts, Kim’s round, the first he’d ever played, was highlighted by five aces.

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Outside of North Korea and its oppressed population, no one buys a single bit of this. This is, after all, a regime whose countless fabrications include the claim that Americans eat Korean babies, and that Pyongyang won the space race by landing a rocket on the moon years before Neil Armstrong made his lunar walk. (I’ve seen the aforementioned rocket up close and in person; it looks like it was made from papier-mache).

Even so, there is something about the story of Kim’s epic round that sets it apart from the run-of-the-mill North Korean propaganda. Unlike so many lies oozing from the Hermit Kingdom, this one was not a standard state-sponsored deception. It wasn’t born solely of blind dictator-worship or nationalist chest-thumping or any of the usual sources of distortion.

It resulted from an innocent scorekeeping mistake.

But before I tell you what I know, I should tell you how I came to know it. The details were relayed to me five years ago during my own travels in North Korea, where I’d turned up to compete in a tournament. Billed as the national championship, the North Korean Open is more curiosity than cutthroat contest, which is only fitting, given that it’s held at Pyongyang Golf Course, the same layout where the Dear Leader allegedly shot his 34. The fields in the annual handicapped event are fairly small, and most of the golfers struggle to break 90.

In 2011, the year I was there, I gained entry to North Korea by fudging the facts on my visa application. (I said I was a golf-tour operator.) I flew to Beijing, hopped a train to eastern China, then winged into Pyongyang on a groaning Soviet-built jet that I felt pretty certain was going to crash. I was met at the airport by a North Korean government minder, who remained glued to me throughout my week-plus stay. He was part sidekick, part enforcer—Stevie Williams in disguise.

My first few days in Pyongyang were grimly absorbing, consisting mostly of Potemkin Village tours of grandiose landmarks. But then time came to hit the links. After a 30-minute bus ride from the capital, past fallow fields tilled by farmers working under armed watch, we came to the course. A group of smiling caddies greeted us outside the clubhouse. So did the club manager, a stern-faced, chain-smoking man in a brown suit and cap with a red star above its bill.

After some cajoling through an interpreter, he agreed to field a few of my questions. The first was a no-brainer: had he witnessed the Dear Leader’s fabled round?

He chuckled but said nothing, puffing on an unfiltered cigarette.

What about the record-shattering score and those unforgettable five holes in one?

This time, to my surprise, he answered.

Kim, the manager said, was, of course, a staggering golf talent, possessed of an enchantingly rhythmic swing. But even for a player of his abilities, five aces in one round were out of reach. How that stat had entered into the official record was pretty simple, the manager said: The scorekeeper tracking Kim’s round that day had relied on a relative-to-par system, marking down 0 for pars, 1 for bogeys and 2 for double-bogeys. 

Unfamiliar with that scorekeeping shorthand, the North Korean state news agency covering the outing had read the five 1s on Kim’s card as holes-in-one.

Forget the fact that Kim, a rank beginner, probably never sniffed bogey all day. (If you were keeping score for a brutal autocrat, would you dare tell him he’d made nothing but snowmen?)

His alleged aces at least now made a kind of goofy sense: a mundane error had slipped into the official annals, dispatched proudly on the newswires by the North Koreans, only to be snickered at by the rest of the world.

On a less momentous note, I finished third in the North Korean Open, a respectable showing that I’ll never top because I’ll never play golf in North Korea again. But I do still think about the strangeness of the trip, and the tournament itself, and my surreal exchange with the clubhouse manager, an oddly human moment in a country sadly stripped of its humanity.

I also still follow the news out of Pyongyang. Recently I learned that Kim Jong Il’s successor, Kim Jong Un, aka the Great Leader, has made his own mark on the golf world: He’s been credited with designing a newly opened putt-putt course in the North Korean capital.

Searching online, I found photos of the course. It looks pretty easy—so straightforward, in fact, that I might even believe you if you told me that the Great Leader had played it and made five holes in one.