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Here's a new destination for your golf bucket list: North Korea

By then I'd grown accustomed to non-answers and half-truths, even to the most straightforward queries. Earlier that week, on a sightseeing visit to the 38th parallel, the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea, I'd asked for an update on the Diamond Mountain resort, a luxury hotel and golf course that was opened in 1998 as a joint venture by the two Koreas and operated by Hyundai, the Seoul-based automaker. Once a symbol of hope for reunification, the resort became an emblem of bad blood between the nations in 2008, when North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean guest as she strolled along a restricted beach.

In the wake of that incident, Diamond Mountain shut down. But I'd since read reports that the North Korean government had seized the property and was eager to draw tourists back to it. One rumor even had it that the course was now operating as a playground for wealthy foreigners. I wanted to know more, but I should have known better.

"I've heard nothing about this," Ms. Kim said when I asked.

It was possible, of course, that she really hadn't; secrecy in North Korea is a way of life. Before I arrived, I'd been warned that my hotel room would be bugged and any e-mails I sent from the business center vetted. Any violations of North Korean law, be it slandering Kim Jong-il or trying to socialize with the general population, would be met with deportation.

Not that there was much chance to bend the rules. Like many Western tourists, we were housed for the week in the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story tower set on an island in a broad tributary of the Taedong River, which flows southwest through Pyongyang. We were free to wander around the property but forbidden to cross the pedestrian bridge that links the island to the rest of the city. Until last year, hotel guests had access to a par-3 course just outside the lobby. But that layout had been bulldozed. I could see its faded footprint from the window of my room on the 43rd floor, where I'd sit every evening, watching the lights twinkle in the city, until 10 p.m. when, in a forlorn nightly ritual, power is shut down across the capital.

In Pyongyang, they even tell you when it's bedtime.

As an antidote to the sobering experience of being in North Korea, we had the slapstick goof that was the tournament itself. For starters, there was the scoring system, implemented by our Open "referee," a septuagenarian Brit, who, in a prior life, had officiated professional events. Though we'd all submitted handicaps before arriving, the official took it upon himself to change them, using calculations so convoluted that no one could explain them, least of all the scorekeeper himself. The upshot was that by the end of the first day, my 6 index was inflated to a 9; a Brit named Simon saw his jump from 12 to 30; while the Finn, who admitted to playing off 18, watched his balloon to an improbable 52.

It was absurd, but none of it mattered. And like golf almost anywhere, anytime, it turned out to be a lot of fun. We hacked, we laughed. We laughed, we hacked. Then we piled into the clubhouse, where we drank and laughed some more.

By the second day, the Filipino had withdrawn, as had the Hong Kong businessman. But a lone North Korean had joined the competition. Sort of. He showed up on the first tee, banged a few practice balls into the lake, then grew tired of waiting and, without a word, hopped into his cart and drove to the back nine.

By then I'd gained control over my whippy 3-wood, but I was hooding every iron and three-putting half the greens. The golf was carefree. The only pressure I felt came from trying to play well for my caddie, who responded to my poor shots with such pained exclamations that a spectator might have thought she had hit them herself.

When dawn broke on Day 3, the final round, I was somehow in third place, behind my pal, Tsogo, the Mongolian black belt, and Simon, the alleged 30.

The three of us were grouped together in the final round, a sloppy affair in which we lost more balls than we made birdies. In the end, Simon was the runaway winner. I'd held my hold on third. We retired to the clubhouse for a trophy ceremony and a boozefest, fueled by the Mongolians, who broke out several bottles of vodka.

Giddiness reigned on the bus ride to the hotel. Midway through it, Ms. Kim grabbed the mic and serenaded us, in a heavy accent, with the Titanic theme: an oddly touching moment, a break from the propagandist script. As I stepped off the bus in the hotel parking lot, Ms. Kim smiled warmly. But the next morning, when she retrieved me to take me to the airport, she was back to her steely tour-guide self. At the terminal, she waved me through departures, wheeled and left.

As my plane took off, I peered through the window for one last glimpse at North Korea, and I kept looking as we rose into a cloud bank. The land grew misty, then vanished altogether. The Open was over, and my portal to a strange, sad world had closed.

PYONGYANG OR BUST
Want a spot in the 2013 North Korean Amateur Open? Here's what you need to know.

When: May 23-28.

Cost: $1,599-$1,899, depending on whether participants fly from Dandong, China, to Pyongyang or take the train. Americans are required to fly.

Included: A six-day trip, including three rounds of golf (one day of practice and two days of a stroke-play tournament) and one and a half days of tours around Pyongyang; all transport from China to North Korea as well as accommodation, visa, meals, tournament entry, club hire and guides is also included.

Not included: International flights to China and a Chinese visa, plus gratuities for guides, which are discretionary.

More info: northkoreanopen.com, which includes contact information and details on how to register.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.


 

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