What if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un challenged U.S. President Donald Trump to a round of golf in a high-stakes gamble at a historic summit?
Donald Trump hits out of the sand in Pebble Beach, California, 11 February 2005. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
What’s in the envelope?
The contents of the over-sized envelope that Kim Jong-un’s emissary handed U.S. President Donald Trump remain, as of this writing, a mystery. Most pundits believe it contained a personal note of amity from Kim Jong-un, with the usual platitudes – looking forward to our meeting, big hug to your wife, I’ll bring some homemade kimchi for you – that kind of thing.
However, my contact at the North Korean embassy in Stockholm, an old drinking buddy whom I first met in Berlin some decades ago – he was a young aspiring diplomat, me a struggling junior reporter – has assured me that the jumbo envelope contains an invitation to a high stakes golf match.
The nuanced invitation came in the form of a scorecard for The Serapong, a championship course at the Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore, and a key card for locker number 4 in the club’s luxurious VIP changing room.
The meaning? The North Korean leader was challenging Donald Trump to a round of golf. Winner takes all – in this case if Kim won, North Korea would get all sanctions removed and become a favored trading partner of the United States, and his younger sister would get favorable terms for the national franchises for McDonald’s, Olive Garden and Krispy Kreme.
Trump, if he were to win, would get to crush Kim like a flea on the hindquarters of an elephant.
It’s well-known that Donald Trump is a keen, and by his own estimation, a very good golfer.
Kim Jong-un made his bet based on the lesser-known fact that Donald Trump is by several accounts a serial cheater, calculating that Trump would crumble under the pressure of playing golf by the rules.
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Mark Mulvoy, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, said he was playing with The Donald when Trump arbitrarily placed his ball 10 feet from the hole. “Donald, give me a f–g break,” Mulvoy said. “You do not lie there.”
After the story was published in the Washington Post in 2015, Trump first denied having ever played with Mulvoy, saying “I don’t even know who he is.”
Trump rejected the story, saying, “I don’t drop balls. I don’t move balls. I don’t need to … There’s very few people that can beat me in golf.” Shifting tack, Trump then added: “Ahh, the guys I play with cheat all the time. I have to cheat just to keep up with them.”
Rick Reilly, a noted golf writer with Sports Illustrated and commentator for ESPN, played a round with Trump and said Trump wrote down scores he hadn’t achieved, conceded putts to himself by raking the ball into the hole with his putter instead of striking it properly and took “the world’s first gimme chip-in.”
“When it comes to cheating, he’s an 11 on a scale of one to 10,” Reilly was quoted as saying. Trump’s reply: “I always thought he (Reilly) was a terrible writer … I absolutely killed him, and he wrote very inaccurately.”
Reilly had the last word: “Golf is like bicycle shorts. It can reveal a lot about a guy.”
Boxing champ Oscar de la Hoya said Trump broke the rules numerous times in the two holes the men played together.
On one hole, according to de la Hoya, Trump’s first shot landed in the water. The next went out of bounds. The third sliced back into the water. And the fourth was lost to the surrounding bushes. Yet Trump drove his cart to the middle of the fairway and declared that the ball lying there was his first drive and played from there.
Similarly, on the next hole, a par-3, when de la Hoya saw Trump’s tee shot sail into the bushes, Trump “found” his ball three feet from the hole. And then picked it up, claiming a gimme.
Actor Samuel L. Jackson played golf with Trump, along with actor Anthony Anderson. Jackson said he and Anderson “clearly saw him hit a ball into a lake at Trump National in Jersey — and caddy told him he’d found it.”
Trump played the ball from the fairway, without penalty or chagrin. When the story became public Trump, replied that he had never played with Jackson and did not know him, adding that Jackson’s work in the film Pulp Fiction was “boring.”
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Less well-known is that Kim Jong-un is an exceptional golfer, having been taught the game as a child by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, arguably the greatest golfer of all time.
In the late 1980s, playing his first-ever golf game, Dear Leader Kim Il-sung, shot 34 on the 18-hole, par 72, 7,700-yard Pyongyang Golf Course; 38 under par. Official Pyongyang media reports state that the man referred to as “the sun of the 21st century” aced five holes during that round.
Other, more effusive North Korean publications say that he shot eleven holes-in-one in his first try at golf. (A renaissance sportsman, he also reportedly bowled a perfect 300 on his first attempt at that sport).
Regardless of whether he had five or eleven holes-in-one, the golf pro at the Pyongyang course, Park Young Man, witnessed the round and signed Kim Il-sung’s scorecard, calling his president “a natural.”
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Trump’s much self-lauded negotiating skills are based on a Western, nuance-challenged, zero-sum model – I win, you lose.
Kim Jong-un’s strategy is more subtle. He recognizes that Trump’s reading list does not include tomes on Eastern philosophy. Kim, however, is a student of East Asian philosophy and is well-versed in the writings of sixth-century B.C. Chinese writer Lao Tse, founder of philosophical Taosim.
Kim has noted Lao Tse’s strategy for winning wars: “Silence is a source of great strength.”
Kim has a few other aces up his sleeve. The Sentosa Golf Club, located near the summit’s venue, adheres to Singapore’s strict environmental regulations, a point Kim might point out if Trump invites him to play at one of Trump’s courses, which use copious amounts of water and toxic chemicals.
If Trump chooses to drive his own golf cart? Number eight on a list of common sense etiquette regulations posted by the Sentosa Golf Club stipulates that “the movement of golf carts should be strictly observed,” which could restrict Trump’s penchant for driving his cart on the greens.
And Trump will be without his regular compliant caddie and at the mercy of a strict Singapore caddie who knows how to keep score.
Perhaps most important, Kim is relying on Trump’s naïveté in accepting locker number 4.
In Korea (as in China, Japan and Taiwan), the number 4 is a homonym for the word meaning “death” (“si” in Mandarin Chinese, “sa” in Korean) and therefore a harbinger of disastrous bad luck. This fear is called tetraphobia and is so prevalent that elevators in South Korea don’t even show the numeral 4 but use the English letter “F.”
And Kim’s locker? He has reserved locker number 8, which sounds similar to the word for wealth, success and high social status. It is the most auspicious number throughout eastern Asia.
Round one to Kim?
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include “An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles,” “Distant Greens,” “Curious Encounters of the Human Kind,” “Redheads,” “Share Your Journey” and “Soul of the Tiger” (with Jeff McNeely). He has lost many balls on the challenging Serapong course, frustrated by the narrow fairways and distracted by the splendid views of the Singapore skyline. The author can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.