This is Part II of a story about a 2008 tournament trip to the North Korean border. Read Part I Here.
“One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.” -William Feather
This week my personal gallery of fans consisted of members of ‘the family;’ the ‘Dragon Brothers.’ I ate dinner with members of the Korean mob every night, one ‘brother’ was my transportation and caddy for the week, and another invited me to play an extra practice round on the tournament course. As the week rolled on, I had a few more spectators every day.
Tensions had been high between the North and South on the Korean peninsula, with training exercises coming to a full boil on both sides of the line. Being very close to the North Korean border, gunfire comes from the North Korean training camps a few miles away, while equally disruptive and alarming training exercises were also run on the South Korean side of the border. I was on the edge of the world playing golf in the middle of a potential warzone.
“You in Korea, my family…caddy, hotel, car…give you,” Mr. Lee said to me. “No money, no problem, brother,” he continued. I had become an honorary member, an adopted brother.
As the afternoon light faded into evening on Friday, I was still on the golf course playing a slow second round on the mountainous, narrow course. I was paired in the final group of the afternoon wave and on the 16th hole, our group could barely see golf balls fly. The two players in my group had struggled through the round and were well over par with no hope for making the cut. I hovered around the cut line and as the second round was suspended due to darkness, it became clear that I would have to par the final two holes to make the cut. I would rest for the night and have a morning mission.
A 6:30 a.m. restart and my playing partners had withdrawn, deciding to forgo the early wake up for two meaningless holes. 17 was the hardest hole on the course: a 220 yard peninsula green with a pale, vexing water hazard protecting the right side. It was not the ideal wake up shot. As I arrived on the 17th tee with only a rules official as my marker and Mr. Lee on the bag, I teed up my ball and took a deep breath, watching the cold air turn white from exhalation. I took a few practice swings before seeing a half dozen of Mr. Lee’s Dragon brothers standing alongside, ready to cheer me inside the cut line. Say what you will about the Dragon brothers, when it comes to golf, they are committed.
A perfectly struck 4-iron into the crisp morning air left me breathing a sigh of relief as I watched the ball fly straight at the pin, draw a few yards and land 20 feet short of the hole. I would go on to narrowly miss the birdie effort and secure a par. The eighteenth hole was a 450 yard par 4, over two ravines for both the tee shot and approach. Two nervous swings and one mediocre chip left me with a putt of 8 feet above the hole. This putt was a must make or I would not be playing the weekend.
What’s more though, should this putt not fall, I will have let down Mr. Lee and his brothers, an undesirable position to be in. I didn’t want to be the one to break the hearts of the Korean wiseguys. I surveyed the putt from all sides. It was going to be very fast and have nearly a foot of break. The Dragon brothers looked on anxiously. I wasn’t going to let them down. Time stood still after the ball left my putter face.
I knew I had pushed the putt just a hair. The ball began breaking toward the high side of the hole. Catching the high-side lip, the ball boomeranged around the hole before falling in the front. I threw a fiery fist pump as the Dragon Brothers cheered and high fived near the green’s fringe. Back pats, fist bumps and a full weekend of golf awaited as I walked toward the scoring area, feeling the supportive hands at my back that had likely been used in not so supportive ways.
Over the weekend I became friendly with the tour representative for a new Korean golf equipment company that was in high demand. The company was only giving clubs to Korean native players for promotion. However as conversations developed with the tour representative, he promised to make an exception for me. The clubs were hot commodities in Korea and impossible for a non-tour player to buy at the time. Mr. Lee took notice and mentioned his desire for a set as the weekend finished. Owning this equipment would be another symbol of status for a Korean golfer. A tee notch above the bedpost.
The tournament ended and as we began to drive away from the course, the booming military zone became a rearview mirror memory. On my way back to the airport, I was concerned I may have to bump someone off to pay my tab. Mr. Lee and the Dragon Brotherhood had been beyond supportive and I hoped I didn’t owe any special favors. I breathed a small sigh of relief when the bags were curbside at Incheon Airport.
Before checking for the flight, I unzipped my travel bag and checked the contents. As I took a quick inventory, I noticed the special Korean prototype golf equipment that had been given to me was gone. I paused in humourous disbelief.
“What is it?” Asked an Australian friend of mine.
I chuckled. “That prototype equipment is gone.”
My Aussie friend had hitched a ride back to the airport with us and knew the story. He laughed.
“Mate, that’s the problem with being part of the family: what’s mine is yours.” Mr. Lee had been paid unbenounced to me. In Mr. Lee’s world, you act first, ask later, if at all.
I would later be contacted by the same tour representative from the Korean golf company who told me he found the equipment I had been issued. The rep said it was a long story as to how he came across the equipment, but what I needed to know was the man who caddied for me was a very dangerous man and I should not contact him again.
My attempts to reach the tour representative for further explanation on later visits to Korea fell on deaf ears. The rep either decided it wasn’t worth disclosing, or disappeared like witnesses to mob heists sometimes do.