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Journeys: Sport of Kings

However strange and exotic the setting may be to Westerners, Morocco holds few if any untoward surprises for most golfers. The rules and customs—written and unwritten—follow the American paradigm. And though it is always best to make arrangements in advance, club managers will go out of their way to accommodate visit­ing Americans who drop in unannounced and unsponsored. The fairways and bunkers typically are impeccably maintained, and the amenities—bars, dining rooms, locker rooms—are frequently top-shelf.

“In style of play and in golfing culture, America is the norm,” says Hassan El Belghitti, director of the Royal Golf of Fez club. “In French and in Arabic, the word for bogey is bogey, fairway is fairway, and birdie is birdie. There’s no handicap required at most clubs, and the caddies are knowledgeable and inexpensive; they generally receive between $8 and $10 in tips.”

A golf truism familiar to Americans also applies in Morocco, says 34-year-old Mehdi El Abbadi, a member of the Fez club: “You can tell a lot about a man by the way he plays golf.” Often you can tell where he is from. “Take the Anglo-Saxons,” says El Abbadi, the proprietor of La Maison Bleue, one of the most elegant restaurants and night clubs in the Fez medina. “They are more interested in sportsmanship. The French are different. They do anything to win.”

No blanket statement covers Moroccan golfers, and so each club possesses its own distinct personality, says the restaurateur, who claims to have played every course in the country. At the Fez club, for instance, the golfers are more sincere about the sport. “It is a difficult course, but it builds character,” he says. At the Marrakech Royal Golf Club, on the other hand, the members are concerned with glamour and fashion. “It is very French,” he says.

One element found in American golf but absent from the Moroccan game is crowded courses. This holds true even at Africa’s most charismatic club, the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam in Rabat. Here, on the club’s Red Course, widely considered the masterpiece of the late designer Robert Trent Jones Sr., fairways roll gently among jungles of banana, cork, cypress, and eucalyptus trees, while Roman ruins reflect off a lake. Pink flamingos and ibises strut across an island fringed with bamboo, and the air is fragrant with mimosa and roses. The clubhouse is spacious and modern, with panoramic windows overlooking the fairways and practice range, and the club’s grounds are perfectly groomed. “Not everyone is permitted to play the Red Course,” says Younes El Hassani, Morocco’s second-ranked player and the Dar Es Salam club pro, as our cart rolls along one of the route’s fairways. “You have to have a handicap of no more than 18. It is very rare that anyone, even a pro, gets a score of 70 or better. It is long, more than 7,300 yards, and played almost entirely over water, with very fast greens.”

The most formidable of the Red Course’s 18 holes is the ninth, which is situated on an island. “Here, accuracy is far more important than power, as the surrounding trees and sand provide very little margin for error,” says El Hassani. “Once you reach the green, your caddy can be very helpful. They can help you in reading the slopes and bumps. They see them every day, and they know them better than anyone.”

Except for a foursome of Swiss moving along to the 10th hole, the Red Course appears to be empty. “The national teams from Scotland, France, and Italy come here to practice,” says El Hassani. “The facilities here are excellent. We have an excellent restaurant and bar. But this,” he says, indicating the course with a wave of his hand, “is how it is most days. We see very few Americans except for your ambassador. He comes here to golf every Saturday morning.”

The notable exception to this rule occurs every fall, when some 140 Americans—golfers, their spouses, and a professional field that, in years past, has included Hale Irwin, Orville Moody, Vijay Singh, Lee Trevino, Payne Stewart, Nick Price, and Billy Casper—descend on the club for the annual Hassan II Golf Trophy pro-am tournament.

In the spring of 1971, King Hassan II of Morocco celebrated the 10th year of his reign by embarking on an unprecedented odyssey through his country. From Rabat, the country’s capital, he motored serenely in a cavalcade of some 300 limousines, sedans, and military personnel carriers past the impassive casbah walls in the inland city of Ouarzazate, through Agadir and sun-drenched fishing communities on the Atlantic coast, on to Zagora on the edge of the Sahara, and to villages that had not hosted royalty in centuries. His subjects responded with an outpouring of affection, throwing rose petals in front of the cars and perfuming the air with rosewater. The procession also included the king’s two sons, his ministers, his top-ranking generals, and, naturally, Billy Casper and his wife, Shirley.

The presence of the Americans on a tour intended to stir Moroccan fealty and pride was no surprise to those who knew the monarch; on the contrary, it would have been out of character for Hassan to travel without a golfing pal. He surrounded himself with professional and amateur golfers, and he converted the grounds of his favorite palaces to 9-, 18-, and 45-hole courses. Visiting professionals were indulged and fawned over to a degree that few enjoyed anywhere else in the world.

The amiable, homespun Casper, winner of 51 PGA tournaments, including two U.S. Opens and a Masters, was among the king’s favorite golfing buddies. Casper was playing with the king one day during the extensive tour when, just in passing, the golfer mentioned how much he was enjoying his visit and getting to know Morocco’s people. At this, the king called an aide to his side and whispered, “Take them here and here and here. . . .”

When Hassan and Casper finished their round, the king’s aide beckoned Casper and his wife to come with him. “We spent the next week sightseeing through Morocco on the king’s private plane, being entertained by government officials wherever we went,” recalls Casper.

An invitation from the king was an offer you could not refuse. In 1968, at the suggestion of Tommy Armour, whose book How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time had impressed the king, Hassan asked Claude Harmon, then the pro at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., to come to Morocco to help him with his game. Harmon explained that he was flattered but it was the middle of the golf season and his employers would be reluctant to let him go. After the U.S. Department of State stepped in, though, the club saw things the king’s way and allowed Harmon to fly off to North Africa on official business: a 10-day personal clinic with the pro-Western monarch.

Three years later, Harmon’s son, Butch, who later would earn fame as Tiger Woods’ coach, became the first pro at the opulent, 45-hole Dar Es Salam golf course. For Butch, the job represented a dramatic change from working at an American country club, where typically a golf pro would have to endure endless committee meetings regarding the club’s courses. “If I said something to the king like, ‘I’ll never understand why that bunker is there,’ it would be gone the next morning,” says Harmon.

However, being closely associated with the king could be risky. In 1971, not long after the anniversary cavalcade through Morocco, golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Claude Harmon were attending the monarch’s birthday party at the royal palace in Rabat when a thousand rebellious Moroccan troops stormed the festivities and shot and killed some of the guests. They subsequently herded the survivors—including Jones and Harmon—outside and told them to lie on the ground. The man next to Harmon protested and was shot dead.

The king eluded the rebels by hiding in the palace, but eventually one of the rebel commanders discovered him. Hassan then looked the commander in the eye and ordered him to kiss the royal ring and pay fealty to his king. At this, the insurgents’ leader knelt and kissed the king’s hand, signaling an end to the coup attempt.

“Everybody knew he was the king,” Casper says of Hassan. “He had a regal presence.” Hassan also had a good game; he held a six handicap. “He was very strong on the last hole,” says Casper. “He generally played with a group of four or six. If you wanted to do business with him, the only time was on the golf course. You had to go to the club early and wait.”

His infatuation with golf notwithstanding, Hassan was no self-indulgent potentate who worked on his approach shot while his people languished in poverty. He was almost fanatically pro-Western, and his reign was marked by his efforts to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. “Morocco is a tree whose roots are sunk deep in Africa,” ?the king used to say, “but its branches reach out to Europe.”

It was a happy coincidence that the game the king loved was also the key to a greater strategy of aligning his country more closely with the West by dint of tourism. To this end, he founded an annual pro-am tournament, the Hassan II Golf Trophy, designed to attract some of the game’s biggest names along with planeloads of well-heeled amateurs.

When Hassan died in 1999, his son ascended to the throne as Mohammed VI—“M6” to the Moroccan smart set. Mohammed does not share his father’s passion for golf; heli-skiing and Jet Skiing are more his speed. But he is no less committed to exploiting the sport as a draw for tourists. In 2001, the king launched a campaign called Vision 2010, which is intended to increase fivefold the number of visitors to the country by 2010. Billions of dollars have been invested in the construction of seaside resorts, marinas, hotels, vacation condos, and golf courses. Within the next two years, the number of Morocco’s courses will increase from 17 to 45.

The feverish growth might suggest another Dubai—some of the companies involved in Morocco’s development are based in Dubai—but a comparison of the two locales does not hold up. You visit Dubai for its shopping malls, indoor ski runs, and man-made islands, for the oversized and the unlikely, the contrived and the artificial. To experience the authentic and the traditional, you go to Morocco, home to walled medieval cities; souks honeycombed with labyrinthine passages; inner cities hiding ancient palaces; Bedouin camps and oases; snowcapped mountains with ski lifts running to their summits; steep ravines with ancient dwellings climbing the sides of cliffs; and vast squares milling with rug merchants and magicians, snake charmers and belly dancers.

“It’s another world,” notes course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. “I first went there to work with my father on the Dar Es Salam course in 1968. There were parties every night, with exotic dancing and people from different tribes in different costumes. At breakfast we’d be given honey of all different colors and flavors, depending on what flowers the bees had lived on. Walking through the palaces, I would see artisans smoking hash while lying on their backs and doing patterns in tile work on the ceilings, with the hash inspiring the visions they were re-creating in their artwork. It was all incredible.”

South African golfer Gary Player finds Morocco no less intriguing. “Everything there is different,” he says. “The coffee tastes different. The tea tastes different. The bread tastes different. The prayer calls before dawn were mystical. I’d never heard anything like that before. And the sunsets were spectacular.”

Player is building two courses near the city of Essaouira, on the Atlantic Coast, where the hulking ruins of a fort on the beach are said to have inspired the Jimi Hendrix classic “Castles Made of Sand.” (Hendrix, however, recorded the song two years before he went to Essaouira.) Player says, “When I first visited Essaouira, I had planned to fly from there back to Europe, but I found the beach and the desert sands irresistible, so I drove [to Tan­gier, where a ferry departs for Spain]. It was a magical experience.”

If not a magical experience, playing in the 10-day Hassan II Golf ?Trophy pro-am is at least a unique one. “Usually you say hello to the pros at the first tee and then see them again at the last,” says Dick McConn, CEO of M Intenational, a firm that maintains the Moroccan government’s planes. He is also, not coincidentally, the chairman of the U.S. Committee of the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation. “With this tournament, you meet them in the States when you board the plane, which you pretty much have to yourselves, and then you have three days of match play during which you switch partners. The amateurs tend to be successful businessmen, and the pros like to know who’s along, so there’s also a lot of socializing going on. By the sixth or seventh day, everybody knows everybody.”

The first-place trophy is a scimitar encrusted with jewels, which, McConn explains, is one of the sports world’s most coveted prizes. But according to Trent Jones Jr., this was not always so. “In the early days of the tournament, pros weren’t making a lot of money,” he says. “You’d hear the pros talking among each other about how much cash they could get if they pawned it.”

Nevertheless, Casper treasures the scimitars he has garnered as a two-time winner of the tournament. He plans to return to Morocco this fall to compete for a third. “The royal family invites me back every year,” he says. “I’m the candle on the cake.”  


Royal Golf Dar Es Salam, +, www.royalgolfdaressalam.com; Hassan II Golf Trophy, www.hassan2golftrophy.com

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