Playing a 'round' near the DMZ
U.S. ARMY CAMP BONIFAS, South Korea -- We've all hit tee shots that could be described as "dangerous." Tight fairways. Intimidating water hazards. Thick fescue. All of these make for "dangerous" conditions.
But I've never hit a tee shot with the North Korean army just a mulligan away.
Such is golf at U.S. Army Camp Bonifas, South Korea, home to one of the world's most unique golf courses. The "course" consists of a single 192-yard, par-3 hole that sits 440 yards from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.
The green is made of artificial turf. Heavy barbed wire marks out of bounds on the left; a six-foot-deep military trench runs along the right. It won't be confused for a country club, but for soldiers stationed at Camp Bonifas, it's a functional golf hole in their own backyard -- and that's all that matters.
"I played golf on Sunday and it was a 12-hour trip," says 22-year-old Staff Sgt. Derrick Meisenheimer. "I left here at 8 in the morning and I got back at 8 at night. So it's nice to come out here, hit some balls, have some place to practice a little bit."
From his direct manner of speaking to his thousand-yard stare, Meisenheimer looks and talks like a guy with "Staff Sgt." in front of his name. Originally from suburban Kansas City, Mo., he's the type of guy who was born to be a soldier. He's just one of the avid golfers at Camp Bonifas, and he'll be my playing partner for a round. He greets me wearing full camouflage fatigues, combat boots and a 9mm pistol at his side. He says he regularly shoots in the mid-80s. He carries a new set of Taylor Made clubs and, fortunately, plenty of balls.
There are no carts at Camp Bonifas, so Meisenheimer marches us to the tee. We meander through a maze of old army buildings and cross a small wooden plank that serves as a footbridge leading to the tee box, where we'll begin playing what Sports Illustrated once called the "most dangerous hole in golf."
Meisenheimer gives me honors, which given the discrepancy in our job descriptions, doesn't seem quite right. But he has a gun and I have a notebook. I comply. With the mountains of North Korea behind me, I step to the tee.
The elevation of the tee box is 50 feet above the fairway, and it sits on top of an empty machine gun nest. Unfortunately, my tee shot isn't quite accurate. Hitting a 4-iron from a mat made of artificial turf, I hook my first shot -- a warmup shot -- out of bounds to the left and directly into what used to be a live minefield.
"Hit that one into North Korea," Meisenheimer deadpans. I'm not smiling. I shank a get-me-out-there 7-iron short and to the right -- barely clearing a steep ravine that leads to the fairway. Not a good start.
Meisenheimer shows me up by hitting his hybrid wood perfectly long and straight, right through a narrow chute of trees that leads to the fairway. Even in combat gear, his swing is perfect. The ball lands 20 yards short of the green, exactly where he wants it, on a hole that yields few pars.
"It's a very hard green," he says. "Pretty much everything bounces off the green. It's very frustrating. I made it in three, once."
We make the short, treacherous hike to my ball, a nearly impossible climb down a hill that pitches us into the "fairway." The grass is well-manicured, but by late summer has been lightly burned by the Korean sun. I've got about 90 yards to a wide-open green, but power lines overhead threaten my approach. Meisenheimer advises me to hit it low, and I do -- firing a worm-burner that thankfully runs to within 10 yards of the green, close to Meisenheimer's tee shot. I'm sitting at 3 and still have plenty of work to do. As we walk up the fairway, a smile creeps across Meisenheimer's face. His course is beginning to show its teeth.
The green is guarded by bunkers -- sand and the military variety. I'm still away, so I borrow Meisenheimer's 56-degree wedge for a tricky chip shot over a sand trap. The green looms large, but might as well be pavement given how hard and fast it plays.
I hit a flop shot with backspin -- actual backspin -- that lands 8 feet from the hole and stays there. Meisenheimer is visibly impressed. I've proved my mettle, at least on the golf course, to this soldier.
"This green NEVER holds chips," he says. "That was a money shot." As if to prove his point, Meisenheimer chips his second shot close to the hole, but the ball quickly rolls to the edge of the green. He has a 25-foot putt and lying 2. I'm marking my ball and lying 3. Things are getting interesting.
The artificial turf on the green has shifted because of rain from the heavy monsoon season. The result is a series of long ripples that lead directly toward the cup, which is a piece of PVC pipe that juts up from the ground. It is virtually impossible to get the ball above the lip of the pipe and into the hole, so Camp Bonifas has a lenient "gimme" policy: Just hit the lip of the cup.
Meisenheimer has spent many warm Korean evenings sipping a beverage and learning this green's contours and nuances. Using that experience, his putt from the fringe is a thing of beauty. He lightly taps his putter and watches the ball gently attach itself to one of the ridges, then weave its way down toward the hole. It stops within 3 feet.
We lock eyes.
I take an uncomfortable look at my BlackBerry.
Meisenheimer breaks the awkward moment by smiling and walking toward the putt that I should have given him. He finishes his putt, which clanks off the lip of the cup for a 4.
"Bogey golf," he says. "All day long."
I've got a 10-footer to tie. The green reads pretty straight, definitely a makeable putt. But it runs way past the hole, trickling to a stop and leaving me with another 10-footer. Having learned a hard lesson on AstroTurf putting, I lag the putt to within a foot. Meisenheimer offers no gimme, and I don't dare ask for one. I glance my short putt off the piping for a triple-bogey 6.
We shake hands, and I ask for a rematch, but Meisenheimer has to get back to work. He's providing security at the North Korea border.
Drew Gallagher is a producer for ESPN's features unit. Gallagher, 32, is a self-described "terrible golfer" who once shot an 88 for his high school team -- for nine holes.
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