The Dennis Rodman Effect? Field Dwindles at North Korean Open
On the face of it, Dennis Rodman’s oddball brand of basketball diplomacy in North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with golf.
But there’s a link. At least if you ask Dylan Harris, owner of UK-based Lupine Travel and the organizer of another sporting spectacle in Pyongyang.
Harris runs the North Korean Open, an annual event that draws a mix of foreigners and North Korean nationals for a two-day competition at the country’s only golf course, Pyongyang Golf Club, 30 minutes outside the capital.
Now in its fourth year, the Open has attracted fields as large as 25 (modest by most standards but less so when you consider the locale). But this summer’s installment may be different.
Slated for July, the 2014 Open has been suffering from attrition. Enrollment, once at 15, has dropped nearly in half, and Harris says that recent headlines are partly to blame.
The negative attention surrounding Rodman’s bizarro-world basketball junket hasn’t helped, Harris says. Nor has other news from Pyongyang, including the November arrest of 85-year-old Merrill Newman, a Korean war vet from Palo Alto, Calif.; and the purging of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (North Korean state news did not specify how Jang was put to death, but one report had it that 120 ravenous dogs were unleashed upon him).
Call it cold feet or queasiness. Whatever the case, Open contestants started pulling out.
Through Lupine, his adventure travel company, Harris also runs non-golf-related tours to North Korea. And, he said, interest in those tends to rise whenever the Hermit Kingdom makes the news.
“But it works the opposite way around with the golf tournament,” Harris said. “The majority of those interested in playing are a lot more cautious about visiting.”
Harris said he understands the caution, but he added, for the average golfer, the only hazards of a visit are on the course.
“As I’m now in my 8th year of arranging tours to there, I know the reality is if you have no past history with North Korea and you’re not trying to break any laws such as illegally cross the border or hand out foreign literature, then it is a perfectly safe country to visit,” he said.