On a cloudless morning, 15 miles west of the North Korean capital, I stepped onto the first tee of Pyongyang Golf Course and peered down the fairway of a punishing par 4, with water right, thick woods left and white stakes standing sentinel on either side. A warm wind whipped off Taicheng Lake, ruffling the flagsticks and rattling my focus. Or maybe I was shaken by the wayward shots I'd seen. My playing partner, a hungover Mongolian, had just pumped his Titleist into the pines, following a trail blazed by earlier groups, which featured, among others, a wild-swinging Finn; a Filipino with a flying right elbow; and a New Zealander who'd left what game he had in his adoptive home of China, where he ran a factory that produced edible underwear.
"Now on the tee..." a voice announced in a posh British accent, a formal touch to what was otherwise a hackfest.
Cameras whirred behind me, capturing the moment for state-run TV.
My caddie approached, a shy, smiling young woman hauling a set of ancient rental clubs behind her. I settled on a weapon, a whippy 3-wood, waggled, swung and duck-hooked my ball into the hazard -- a fitting start to a kooky amateur event in a country where most actions are considered out of bounds.
That golf is played at all in North Korea owes to its late despot, Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader," who, in 1987, approved construction of what was then the country's only course, in commemoration of his 75th birthday. That the course has gained strange fame in the sporting world stems largely from Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader," who reportedly carded a 38-under 34 the only time he played it, in a round highlighted by five holes-in-one.
In the years since, no one has come close to that fantastical course record. Then again, few have tried. Desperately poor and brutally oppressed, North Korea's population of 25 million counts among it an estimated 42 registered golfers. South Koreans aren't permitted into the country. For the average Western golfer -- especially those who write for Western magazines -- North Korea sits high on the list of impenetrable venues, somewhere between Seminole and the moon.
I'd won entry to the country with assistance from Lupine Travel, the British tour company that oversees the Open. Its owner, Dylan Harris, a laid-back thirty-something with the shaggy sideburns of a '70s pop star, launched the event (formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Amateur Golf Open, in recognition of the country's official name) in 2011, adding to a list of offbeat offerings that includes trips to Chernobyl and eight-day excursions to Turkmenistan. Earlier this year, Harris also staged the inaugural Iranian Amateur Golf Open, and he's working out the details for an event in Iraq, which, if he succeeds, will give him all three stops on golf's Axis-of-Evil swing.
Once I'd earned approval to enter North Korea, there was the matter of getting to Pyongyang. The most common route for tourists is by train from China. But for no apparent reason, aside from sour relations with the United States, the North Korean regime requires Americans to fly in, which I did, puddle-jumping on a Soviet-era jet from the eastern Chinese city of Shenyang.
On the turbulent flight over, I was handed a copy of The Pyongyang Times, an English language weekly and propagandist mouthpiece, which brimmed with contempt for perceived foes. One op-ed fumed about the U.S. State Department, which had deigned to raise concerns over human rights abuses in North Korea. The U.S. should hold its tongue, the piece stated, given its position as "the ringleader of man-killing" around the globe.
As far as I could tell, I was the lone American on the plane. Yet any fears I harbored of being singled out vanished on arrival at the Pyongyang airport, where I met with the same treatment given everyone else: my passport confiscated, my cell phone commandeered, and my luggage searched for contraband, a loosely defined category that includes GPS devices and writings deemed inflammatory.
Cleared through customs, I was greeted by a woman in a flower-patterned dress, who introduced herself as Ms. Kim. She was one of our two tour guides, government minders who would shadow our golf group throughout our visit, trailing us like caddies wherever we went.
"Your friends will be here soon," Ms. Kim said of my soon-to-be-opponents, who were scheduled to arrive that evening by diesel locomotive. Word was that the field included two Brits, an Aussie, a Kiwi and a Finn. Four Mongolians were expected to join later, along with a Hong Kong native, perhaps a Filipino, and a North Korean -- a rainbow coalition, competing in an Open in a country so closed off that it's called the Hermit Kingdom, a nation armed with nukes and a million-man army, but shuttered by its government onto itself.