North Korea Has One Operating Golf Course
(Updated) The hermit kingdom's only course is a deeply imperfect place that should remind us that there is more to life than golf.
I’ve been searching out some of the most obscure golf courses in the world to add to the golf course wiki. Camp Bonifas Golf Course is next to minefields. The Perenchio Hidden 3 Hole was an illegal course Malibu. The Hana-Maui Resort Pitch & Putt is a tiny course on Maui that isn’t advertised anywhere. Leinster Golf Course is a course on dirt in the Australian outback. I plan to add many more, but recently mapped the Pyongyang Golf Club, the only operating golf course in North Korea. This rarely photographed course is, ironically, not in Pyongyang at all. Instead, it is on Taicheng Lake, near Ryonggang and Kangsŏ, about 40km (25mi) from urban Pyongyang.
Disclaimer: I researched this course simply out of curiosity. I think it should be obvious to say that the DPRK is an extremely repressive regime and this should not be, in any way, seen as any type of endorsement of that government. In addition, the information I have come across is — at best — somewhat inaccurate. There aren’t many resources at all and most of the information I have on the course comes from years-old photos and split-seconds of actual course footage in the propaganda and tourist videos I can find. Take this essay with a grain of salt. There will be inaccuracies, but I’m trying to build a centralized resource for golf architecture, one that can be updated when new information is found, which is the point of the wiki after all.
The State of Golf in North Korea
It should be noted that this is not the only course in North Korea, it’s just the only operating course. There is also the Kumgangsan Ananti Golf Course, however this course seems to be in a serious state of disrepair and is no longer open. There is also the Former Site of Pyongyang Golf Course (actually in Pyongyang) which was removed in early 2012. I use the term Pyongyang Golf Club instead of “Course” to avoid confusion with this former site.
Pyongyang Golf Club
As I was researching, many say playing here is just odd. People hand-cut the grass. Some caddies do not have a sense of professional vs amateur skill levels. It is obvious that the course cannot be generally available to the public, but the staff will insist that there are 40 players on the course each day, even while the course is completely empty.1 Hosts insist that North Korean professional golfers frequent the course, while not knowing who Tiger Woods is.2 One sports reporter went as far to say that no one at the course “had a real understanding of what the sport was.”3
The course itself is a parkland course. The terrain is defined by wooded hills moving toward the water. The front nine plays counter-clockwise on the north side, and the back plays clockwise south of the clubhouse. There are only two marked sets of tees, perhaps a nod to Augusta National.
The Pyongyang Golf Club is on the wiki here for those who want to follow along hole by hole.
Holes 1-5: The Lake Front.
Even to start, the routing is unusual. The first 5 holes play along Taicheng Lake, I would expect these to be finishing holes, but they are starting holes. That isn’t to say this is without precedent, but modern prominent courses tend to avoid the waterfront until at least a few holes in, though some older courses do exactly this.
The architecture of the first 5 holes is strictly penal. There are wide open fairways, with maybe a fairway bunker off to one side, but they all ask players to make a straightforward shot without much room for error. This is most notable in the extreme doglegs of #3 and #4, they are nearly 90º turns with trees along fairways. Hole #1 and #5 also feature more gentle dogleg features. While I generally agree with doglegs as a design feature to limit technology (seemingly a favorite of Wethered and Simpson), they ought to at least have some risk-reward characteristics, such as a fairway bunker the shortest point on the corner. The most notable of these penal holes is #4. It requires a drive of 225m (245 yards) to clear the dogleg with severe punishment on both sides. It is difficult to say whether the tee shot is downhill, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t appear to be. The stroke index is 1, however, so it may simply be difficult by design.
Holes 6-9: The Hills
#6 — Par 4 — Strategic Architecture
The first sign of interesting architecture comes along as the course moves away from the lake into the hills. #6 is a mid-length, dogleg right par 4 that plays up to a ridge-line, and then back down to the hole. The hole is the first instance of any strategic architecture. At the ridgeline, there is a center fairway bunker with a tree behind it. Aggressive players choosing to cut the corner will be rewarded with a good look at the green, but risk both ending up in the bunker, the tree, or worse if their shot moves too far right. Conservative players can play short of the center fairway bunker, but the approach will be a longer, blind shot into the green, and these players may even end up with the center tree obstructing their angle.
#7 — Par 3 — Counter-Intuitive Strategy
The seventh hole is a par 3 that features classic penal architecture. The hole plays over water, but at the hole, the water is only on the right side. At 140m this is no wedge, so psychologically at least, it should favor a left-to-right movement. The architecture, however, adds significant risk to this strategy. For right-handers, this left-to-right shot is a fade, but this shot’s standard miss is short-right, into the pond. For lefties, it’s a draw, but again, the shot’s standard miss will be long-right into a deep bunker. Thus, the ideal shot may actually be to play the ball right-to-left directly over the water to have the safest dispersion zone. This should add a bit of nerves, which can make for an exciting par 3.
#8 — Par 4 — The Gap
One feature that reasserts itself multiple times on the course is forced carries over gaps with trees below. There is no more prominent instance of this than the 8th hole. There is a fairway bunker on the left side that I can make little strategic sense of, but the shot that matters is the approach. It is not a very strategically interesting hole, but it is an excellent example of this theme of playing over gaps, and this approach shot should be much more interesting when a player must carry trees coming up from below the fairway.
#9 — Par 5 — The Signature Hole
It seems the ninth is the signature hole of the course. It is regularly featured in propaganda videos, and is honestly the only hole on the course I find truly noteworthy. The hole plays downhill and slightly left to a pond, then doglegs hard right and moves uphill to the green.
Players could try and add distance by cutting the left side, but they take a lot of risk playing this shot, and any attempt to reach the green in two will require another extremely risky shot. Still, the conservative tee shot is not without its own risks, as it plays way downhill to a landing area with trees fully on the fairway. The ideal line appears to be along the right side, but as players get more aggressive, that ideal landing area both moves left and narrows.
The second shot should play downhill for most, but even more that the tee shot, this shot requires control over distance. On top of the risks along both sides of the fairway, players will need to reach the turn to have an easier look at the green. A bunker in the middle of the fairway, however, punishes anyone who puts too much distance on this downhill shot. The ideal shot for the conservative player is short of the center bunker, about 150m out. For aggressive players, the ideal shot is right of the bunker about 100m out.
The uphill approach shot will likely require a bit of shot-shaping from the conservative players, and the front and rear bunkers seem very much designed to make this approach more challenging than for those who took on the fairway bunker. Great architecture here. Seems like a fun par 5.
Holes 10-12: More Penal Lakeside Architecture.
The 10th, 11th, and 12th holes are the last three holes that play along the lake. The 10th has a fairway the kicks left, and a fairway bunker on the left side, but that bunker should be out of play for even players with modest distance, so a sensible drive is all that is required here. The 11th seems like the only interesting hole in this trio, in that the tee shot appears to require a semi-blind draw to avoid fairway bunker. The 12th is a straight-forward par 5 that requires some risk-reward for fairway bunkers, but again remains more penal than strategic.
Holes 13-17: back into the hills
I have found the least information about this section of the course. I only have vague idea of most of the holes, with little to no elevation data coming from photographs. The 13th, for example, appears to be a straightforward par 3, though without green contour data, it’s hard to say how it plays.
#14 — Par 4 — Another Surprisingly Strategic Bunker
The 14th has an interesting tee shot. The shot plays over a gap, but there is also bunker in the center of the fairway. The fairway bunker is at the ideal wedge distance for most players. Playing behind the bunker appears to be a simple mid-iron tee shot, but to get beyond the bunker requires a 183m (200 yards) carry to an angled fairway. It may seem easy with modern clubs, but could give many players second thoughts.
The approach here plays to a well guarded green that seems to fall off strongly on the right side. The fairway is also likely pitched rightward, as it’s along the edge of a hill. Any side lie here should lead to significant benefit for players with an easier approach, as players’ shots will likely move right on impact, thus, choices on the tee will loom large over this hole.
The next hole, #15, has a curious front-facing bunker well short of the green, and the 16th has a trio of fairway bunkers that will likely add risk to longer hitters, but it’s not clear whether either of these are any more than penal hazards for players. The 17th may be a reversed Eden template, but it’s difficult to say.
#18 — Par 5 — Difficult Choices
Personally I see giving players interesting options as the sign of a good par 5, and the finishing hole here seems to give players exactly that. The tee shot features a landing zone with right-side bunker about 210m (230 yards) off the back tee. After this the hole jogs left and then moves strongly downhill as it moves back right. The left side is obviously the safer landing zone, but it’s also the ideal line for the aggressive player. Ironically, landing closer to the right-side bunker should leave a easier second shot down the hill.
The second shot has a better angle from the left, a narrower window, but a straight shot should run out short of the green, however, any mistake will likely put the shot into one of the hazards on either side. Playing the second shot from the right doesn’t allow direct access to the hole and aggressive shots have a chance of running into the fairway bunker along the left. A conservative shot, however, should be able to safely run down the hill quite well.
These two approach strategies change the risk profile of the deep, front-facing bunker at the final green. Players have real risk-reward options on this final hole, increasing the chance for a dramatic finish.
Interesting for Everything Except Golf
Pyongyang Golf Club is, foremost, a parkland golf course. Tree-lined fairways with penal architecture seem to be the norm, but there are sparks of strategy here and there. One unique course subtlety is the wavy edged greenside bunkering. Nearly every hole has a prominent bunker featuring this ripple pattern along one side of a bunker. It’s a bit banal, but it’s one place I found a bit of distinct personality.
The course is certainly not a hallmark of course design, and people who care about course maintenance will be shocked by the muni-like conditions, but I’ll fully admit it features some holes I find noteworthy, and some I think would be fun to play. Still, all of this is overshadowed by the oddness I repeatedly came across while researching the course. The legion of young, female-only caddies seems like something out of Mad Men era. The photos of maintenance workers manually cutting grass by hand, is quite shocking, though I’ve heard it is not entirely uncommon in the region. How it seems to be completely empty whenever someone visiting is playing makes me think it’s rarely used. Finally, there is simply the strange fact that this is the only operating golf course in the country. The surrealness of this place reminds one that it cannot possibly reflect normal life in this country.
Kim Jong-il “Shooting 34”
No discussion of the course would be complete without reference to the story of Kim Jong-il carding a 34 here:
The story goes that the former Supreme Leader of North Korea, holding golf clubs for the first time at 52 years old, scored no less than a birdie-a-hole on his way to a world record 38-under 34 — 25 shots less than Geiberger’s then-record.
Some say he hit five hole-in-ones along the way; others insist as many as 11 as 17 bodyguards looked on.4
The existence of this story comes from a conversation in 1994 between Australian journalist Eric Ellis, and then club pro, Park Young-man. For context, Ellis entered the country under false pretenses. He was there posing as a golf course architect/contractor, hiding the fact that he was a reporter. Kim Il-sung had recently died, and the nation was in period of transition. Ellis asked if Kim Il-sung had played the course. Park told him no, but that Kim Jong-il (the new leader) had, and then relayed this story. Ellis reported on this absurd story to illustrate the level of overt, forced worship the North Korean people are subjected to:
“I’ve often thought about that guy,” Ellis said of club pro, Park. “He must have just been shitting himself because here comes a foreigner, out of the blue, with three blokes in suits, and it’s a police state.
“And he just made up this most extraordinary story about how he (Kim) had only played once, I think he went around in 34, and hit something like five holes-in-one.”
He added: “I just disarmingly asked if he played golf … remember this is a time when North Korea is transitioning from one leader to another so it’s almost like he has to say the right thing.5
This story, however, is not forgotten or even brushed aside even decades later. As recently as 2016 the caddies at the course address the tale seriously, even if they they don’t directly say it’s true:
“Kim Jong-Il apparently hit an amazing round of golf here at Pyongyang Golf Course, only 34 shots, have you heard about this?” I asked the caddy.
As a golf caddy, knowing the impossibility of such a score, I expected her to laugh it off and dismiss the anecdote immediately. However without missing a beat, she replied formally and it was translated — “She wasn’t here that day, but she says she is aware of the story, and so are her colleagues.”
Well, for a tale dividing many between either North Korean ‘fact’ or Chinese whisper of pure Western fan-fiction, this was an intriguing response. Seemingly in agreement to its potential legitimacy, whether she was aware of this feat only as a result of prior tourists perpetuating the myth, or from it having a genuine origin within North Korean propaganda, I can’t confidently say.6
At the end of the day, any architectural designs on this course will be overshadowed by the cultural norms, government overreach, and highly controlled environment players must participate in to play here.
In 2016, a Golf Magazine writer Josh Sens asked the, then, club manager about Erik Ellis’ story regarding Kim Jung-il’s round. The manager states that it was the result of a scoring mistake:
Kim, the manager said, was, of course, a staggering golf talent, possessed of an enchantingly rhythmic swing. But even for a player of his abilities, five aces in one round were out of reach. How that stat had entered into the official record was pretty simple, the manager said: The scorekeeper tracking Kim’s round that day had relied on a relative-to-par system, marking down 0 for pars, 1 for bogeys and 2 for double-bogeys. Unfamiliar with that scorekeeping shorthand, the North Korean state news agency covering the outing had read the five 1s on Kim’s card as holes-in-one.7
The manager’s account seem to diverge significantly from Ellis’. Whether or not this is historical revisionism, or merely a mistake lost in translation is up for debate, however, it seems mostly immaterial. Anyone snickering at Kim’s score was missing the point of Ellis’ anecdote, but a 34-over 106 is also a completely unreliable score for a first-time player.
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Davies, Elliot. “Out of Bounds in North Korea – Pyongyang Golf Course.” Earth Nutshell. Feb 2016.
Polychronis, Jacob. “How a dangerous tyrant and his unstable regime concocted sport’s most absurd myth.” Fox Sports. foxsports.com.au. May 21, 2020.