Saturday 3 December 2016

Getting a glimpse of golf's secret society

Two student Irish film-makers are about to peek behind an iron curtain, writes Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

Published 13/03/2011 | 05:00

A golfing trip of a lifetime is about to be undertaken by three strangers to the royal and ancient game. Two Irish students at Salford University, along with an English colleague, were granted clearance last week to film a documentary on a golf tournament in North Korea.

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That such an event is actually happening at all is a major surprise in itself. But the fact that Damien Wilson, Alan Dukes and Philip Pendlebury will be there to record it represents a remarkable breakthrough.

"I understand that we will be only the fourth documentary team ever to gain this sort of access," said Wilson, a 30-year-old native of Shannon. "Philip got his entry visa through the North Korean embassy in London, but being Irish, Alan and I will have to pick up ours in China, en route."

It all stems from the initiative of Dylan Harris, owner of the Lupine Travel company in Wigan. His speciality of organising trips to unusual locations has brought clients to such places as Chernobyl and Serbia. Yet when someone suggested a golf tournament in North Korea, his initial reaction was: "No. Not a chance."

Still, an innate sense of adventure prompted Harris to give it a go. And, to his immense surprise, the North Korean authorities agreed to the proposal. So it is that on April 26-30, as part of a trip to the world's most closed society, more than 30 amateur golfers from the UK, United States, Europe, China and Australia, will play North Korea's only public golf course in the capital Pyongyang.

"Philip is friendly with Dylan Harris and it just snowballed from there," said Wilson. "Though we're not into golf, we thought it would be a great subject for our masters degree in documentary production. And Salford are helping us financially. I'll be handling the camera, Alan (23, from Tralee) is the editor and Philip will be directing while helping me with the sound. We leave for China on April 23 and are due to cross the border on the 25th. Then we have six days in North Korea.

"Apart from the university, we are receiving financial support from One World Media, who also provide expertise with documentaries in developing countries," added Wilson.

"Otherwise, we have to fend for ourselves. Sure, there have been lots of offers, including one from the BBC, but only if we return with the goods. Given the extraordinary nature of the trip, I suppose this is to be expected."

A week after the trio had applied in writing for entry visas, a North Korean official visited Salford University enquiring about the movie-makers. Judging from last week's approval, he was clearly satisfied with what he heard.

Over the last 50 years, teams from such unlikely golfing destinations as Libya, Nigeria, Central Africa, Lebanon, Burma, Nepal and Indonesia have competed in the Canada/World Cup. But never one from North Korea. Which is all the more regrettable for the fact that North Korea's only golf club is reputed to have been the scene of the greatest round ever played.

I refer to the miraculous exploit of the country's so-called "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-Il, who covered the par-72 Pyongyang stretch in 34 strokes. That's 38-under par, if you're doubting your numeracy. If you remain sceptical about the deed, the website Anyone For Tee? claims it was witnessed on an October morning in 1994 by no less an authority than Park Young Man, the club's resident professional.

Other observers included 17 armed bodyguards who would swear that the Dear Leader started with an eagle two at the 370-yard first and went on to card five holes-in-one. And they have a picture of the official scorecard. Even more remarkable is that this appears to have been the only round of golf Dear Leader ever played.

More credible is the existence of another Korean golfing stretch which happens to be on the visitors' itinerary. The so-called 'World's Most Dangerous Golf Course' is no more than a 192-yard par-three, located at Panmunjom on a strip of land two and a half miles wide, otherwise known as the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates North and South.

The hole, which got its name at the height of the Cold War, is completely surrounded by minefields. As one US military man observed: "If you hook your ball into the rough, I can tell you you're not getting it back."

In view of the secretive nature of their hosts, had there been any indication of likely restrictions? "So far, only on our equipment," Wilson replied. "Over the past month, we have been negotiating with them regarding the camera, lighting, laptop and sound equipment which we plan to bring with us. Other than that, it seems they're anxious that visitors will take in the country's mountain range and village communities."

Meanwhile, as someone who admits to having played only the odd game of pitch-and-putt, had he any plans to study expert golf-tournament coverage prior to the trip? Already familiar with the story of the Dear Leader's exploits, the Clareman has no similarly outlandish aspirations.

"We will be approaching it more from a social than a competitive point of view," he said. "Being the first international golfing event ever to be staged in the most closed nation on the planet seems important enough in itself.

"It's an amazing opportunity for us. The vast majority of the world's media can't get in there and the only ones I've heard mentioned prior to us have been America's CNN and Australia's ABC. If we pull this off, it will be a huge boost towards achieving some recognition as documentary makers."

But he concluded: "The way things are in Ireland at the moment, it looks like my future will be over here, or further afield."

One can but speculate as to how North Korea viewed the PGA Championship breakthrough of August 2009, when the South's YE Yang became the first Asian winner of a Major golf championship. The fact that they're now opening a golfing door, however modest, makes next month's venture all the more intriguing.

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