Thursday 30 March 2017

North Korea opens up its fairways

DERMOT GILLEECE

The door to an unknown golfing world was opened recently when a group of 22 'outsiders' descended on Pyongyang GC in North Korea. Among them was Damien Wilson from Shannon, a student of documentary film-making at Salford University.

As something of a coup, Wilson and fellow student, Philip Pendlebury, filmed the adventure which will be edited into a 30-minute production this summer. And it seems the notoriously secretive North Koreans were so pleased by the visitors, that they will be welcome back next year, in larger numbers.

Among the more fascinating aspects of the trip was the sight of bemused North Korean border guards suspiciously examining strange implements called golf clubs, which they suspected might be dangerous weapons. Then there was the tournament performance of the lone local player, who did well enough to finish third behind two Finns.

All was arranged by Dylan Harris, owner of the Lupine Travel company in Wigan, which specialises in trips to unusual locations. "Everything was done through an agent in China," he said. "And the North Korean authorities were so pleased that they have invited me to do it again. So I'm open for customers for another golfing trip next May, when I plan to bring 45."

Wilson, who returned to Manchester last weekend, described it as "even more exciting than I ever imagined". He went on: "After flying to Beijing, we had a 14-hour train journey across China to the North Korean border at Dan Dong. Once in North Korea, the general impression was of a typical communist country of the Cold War period.

"Philip and I got some amazing material. It was particularly interesting to be able to dart around the golf course from hole to hole with nobody in our way. There were very few spectators, apart from the press and local officials."

Pyongyang GC, which is the only golf club in North Korea, is situated about 30 kilometres from the capital city, near a military range where soldiers were clearly visible.

"The course was opened in 1987 and it has about 50 local members and 50 foreigners, mainly diplomats," added Harris. "We had 17 players in the tournament and I paid €80 per player in green fees. Though the fairways were a bit overgrown, general opinion was that the greens were excellent. An added attraction was that each player was assigned a charming local female caddie.

"In my dealings with local officials, they talked of being anxious to expand tourism into the country. This is reflected in their response to visa applications. Where it once took two months to have one processed, they now do it in two weeks.

"They are very keen on sport. Football, of course, is the big one. Then there is table-tennis, wrestling and martial arts. I'm afraid golf would be some way down the pecking order because it's so expensive there."

Olli Lehtonen, a Finnish one-handicapper, took the best gross with a 12-over-par 84 but the overall net prize went to fellow countryman, Johannes Raitio, who matched par with a 72. On the subject of scoring, incidentally, the visitors were informed that there was no truth to the internet story of the country's so-called Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, having carded an astonishing 34 strokes for 18 holes in 1994. This was dismissed as a typical piece of western mischief-making.

In this context, suggestions of a total news black-out from the outside world were also scotched by the fact that the BBC World Service could be enjoyed by the visitors on their hotel television.

Sunday Indo Sport

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