Kim Jong-il’s record-setting round may not have been all it was cracked up to be

February 15, 2012

First of all, it wasn't 11 holes-in-one. People always exaggerate when it comes to golf, weight loss and their salaries. But especially golf. No, it wasn't 11 holes-in-one. How crazy do you have to be to believe that the late North Korean leader Kim Jongil actually had eleven holes-in-one in the same round? Come on.

No, really. Let's be serious for a minute. It was five holes-in-one.

The 11 aces thing came much later, after Kim had taken over as supreme leader, imprisoned thousands of political enemies and led his nation squarely into George W. Bush's "axis of evil." By then, you might guess, people didn't really want to contradict Kim.

Eleven, you say?

Sure, that sounds right, now that I think of it, yeah, it was 11.

Heck, by then Kim's official biography claimed that his birth was foretold by a swallow and heralded by a double rainbow. What are 11 aces compared to that?

But if you go back to 1994 you will hear an even more remarkable story that stars an Australian reporter named Eric Ellis, who is now the Europe correspondent for The Global Mail.

Ellis had applied for a visa to enter North Korea posing as a golf course developer. He used that ruse because he thought it sounded benign enough to get him in. It worked, and when he arrived he was assigned "minders," two so-called guides and a driver. The minders had no idea what golf was — really, no idea — but they thought some activity like that was being played near the capital at Pyongyang Golf Club.

Ellis was really in North Korea to investigate famines that were rumored to be causing disturbances. This was just after the death of Kim's father, Kim Ilsung, and before Kim ascended to power. Along the way he saw no evidence at all of famine. "I went to get one world scoop," he says now. "And I ended up getting a completely different world scoop."

He met Park Young-man, who was the country's only golf pro, though even now Ellis isn't sure he actually played golf. The reporter asked Park to name his favorite golfer. Jack Nicklaus? Arnold Palmer? Greg Norman? He'd never heard of any of them. But when Ellis asked Park if he had ever met the "Great Leader" — the recently expired Kim Il-sung — Park said he had not but he had met the "Dear Leader," his son Kim Jong-il.

He proceeded to take Ellis around the course, hole-by-hole, to show him how well Kim Jong-il had played. The first hole was a 374-yard par 4. "Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong-il, who I respect from the bottom of my heart, scored two on this hole," Park said. And it went on from there. The worst Kim scored on any hole was a birdie. He finished with a 34.

And, the famous kicker: Kim had five holes-in-one.

"He's an excellent golfer," Park said.

Ellis has thought often about that young man, the golf pro. Consider his situation. One day at work he finds himself being questioned about the incoming leader by a "golf course developer," who happens to be surrounded by three very official-looking people. Park responded in the most human way imaginable. "I'm quite taken by the inventiveness of his Kim fable," Ellis says now.

Later, the story took off. Suddenly, five holes-in-one became 11. Suddenly there were 17 bodyguards who witnessed the round. Suddenly it was the only round Kim had ever played. Ellis is still not sure if his story was simply picked up and amplified by North Korean propagandists or if it was simply a journalism case of the kid's game Telephone, in which one version morphs into another, and then another.

Whatever. I like the five holes-in-one story better. Golf could use a little less exaggeration.