You go to Morocco as the guest of King Hassan II, you expect a
little royal treatment. What the 142-person entourage from the
U.S. that headed to last week's silver anniversary Hassan II
Golf Trophy could not possibly have expected was to be picked up
in New York City by a specially outfitted 747 that was so cushy
dinner came with three forks. Or, upon arrival in Marrakesh, to
be greeted by television cameras, the royal guard and an
honest-to-goodness red carpet on the tarmac. Baggage claim?
Customs? Puh-leeze. How about being whisked straight onto buses
bound for the hotel, with a police escort parting traffic along
the way. At La Mamounia, reputed to be one of the world's most
sumptuous hotels, a troupe of Berber tribesmen playing their
darabukkes provided a raucous welcome, and an army of hostesses
passed out roses and colorful bags stuffed with gifts.
What's most shocking about this pampering is that it continued,
unabated, for all eight days of the journey. Wedged somewhere
among the black-tie galas, guided shopping tours, dinners at the
ambassadors', fashion shows and cultural performances was the
golf tournament, which was played over five days at the Royal
Golf Dar Es Salam course in Rabat. Spain's Ignacio Garrido shot
a 69-68-72-70-279 to earn $93,000 of the $402,000 purse, as well
as the champion's jewel-encrusted golden dagger. The 27-man
international field he beat included last year's champ, Nick
Price, as well as John Mahaffey, Jesper Parnevik, Craig Stadler
and Sam Torrance. In the concurrent Princess Lalla Meriem Cup,
Lora Fairclough of England won $15,000 for her victory over a
mostly European field of 15 pros.
Representatives of the Hassan II Trophy like to bill the
tournament as the world's most exclusive pro-am, and it does
bring together an impressive collection of moguls and tycoons.
At one gathering Dick McConn, who helped organize the U.S.
contingent, said in a tone of hushed awe, "Look around--every
person in this room is worth $10-to-$20 million." But exclusive
is probably not the right word to describe King Hassan's
tournament, since the handicap cutoff is 28, and the invites
actually are pretty easy to come by if you move in the right
circles and are willing to fork over $8,000 a couple to make the
trip. Of the 88 male and 39 female amateurs who competed in the
54- and 36-hole pro-ams, respectively, most were friends of
members of the invitation committee, had come on the trip before
or were referred by those who had.
Besides, a snooty word like exclusive hardly captures the
essence of this experience. Extravagant, exotic and exhausting
are a little more accurate, but PGA Tour veteran Mark McCumber
probably put it best, hours after shooting a first-round 71.
Standing in the courtyard of one of the king's palaces, clad in
a tux and flanked by a pair of dark-eyed beauties in flowing
technicolor caftans, swaying to the sounds of Moroccan music,
McCumber said, "This is not a golf tournament; it's a fairy tale."
November 18, 1996
"One day, out of nowhere, I got a phone call from the consulate
saying the king of Morocco would like me to come over and play
golf. What was I going to do, say no?" Billy Casper, the
cherubic 65-year-old Mormon from California who won 51
tournaments on the PGA Tour, is recounting how his most unlikely
relationship with Hassan II began in 1969. "I hadn't met too
many kings up to that point," Casper says, "and hadn't been
rehearsed in the protocol. The first time we met, I stuck out my
hand and said, 'Good morning, your highness, it's a pleasure to
meet you.' He looked at me and didn't say a word. So that's how
it began, with a faux pas." It was the start of a beautiful
Casper returned six more times that year to tee it up with the
king, and they've been golfing buddies ever since. In 1971 King
Hassan II threw a little party to christen Dar Es Salam (House
of Peace), a 45-hole complex designed by Robert Trent Jones that
now includes Morocco's first championship-caliber layout, the
7,300-yard Red Course, on which the tournament is played.
Casper, coming off his victory in the '70 Masters, talked a
bunch of his pals into making the trip, and the Trophy was born.
The tournament has grown in fits and starts, enduring in spite
of two attempted coups against the king in the early '70s. In
the past six years the event has benefited from big-name winners
such as Price, Vijay Singh and Payne Stewart (twice), but like
Gatsby, the king is a no-show at his own party. He attended the
first two tournaments but has avoided the crush of the galleries
ever since his air force tried to blow him out of the sky in
August 1972. In his stead the ceremonial first shot is usually
struck by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed, but
this year the duty fell to Her Royal Highness Princess Lalla
Hasnaa, a demure and charming 18-year-old who is the king's
youngest daughter. Dressed in gray slacks and a simple black
top, her ponytail fluttering in the breeze, the princess cut her
tee ball down the right side of the first fairway of the Red
Course, smoothly swinging a l2-degree titanium Burner Bubble.
The princess competed in the tournament, as did her sister
Princess Lalla Aicha. Their scores were not published.
The royal children get their golf jones from their father.
Hassan II is such a die-hard that he has turned the gardens at
two of his palaces into courses, and floodlights have been
installed so he can play at night during Ramadan, the monthlong
Islamic holiday during which believers fast from sunrise to
sunset. We're not talking bubba golf, either. "He can play,"
says Casper, who has competed in almost all 20 of the Trophies,
winning in 1973 and '75. "When he was younger, over nine holes
he'd be a couple, maybe three over par at the most."
A slight man with a sound, upright swing, the king still plays
to a handicap of about 12, although at 67 his golf has been
curtailed by subpar health. Casper says the king has an
excellent touch around the greens, is a cagey course manager and
loves to compete. "I think that may be why we got along so well,
because I played hard against him and never backed off," says
Casper. "Others did, especially the generals and the colonels he
Refreshingly, members of the royal family don't parade around
the course as if they own the place, which they do. His royal
highness is a spirited playing partner. "He'll put the needle to
you pretty good," says his swing instructor, Bobby Casper,
Billy's son. Joan Short, who owns the golf travel agency that
helps recruit the American amateurs who play in the Trophy, has
played with Princess Lalla Aicha on five occasions and reports,
"She really respects the rules of the game. Once the princess's
ball came to rest near a sprinkler head and she asked me if it
was O.K. to take a drop. I was like, You're asking me if you can
move your ball?" The only concessions made to the royal family
are mohawked tee boxes on the par-3 holes, apparently because
the royals fancy grass over wooden tees on which to prop up
their balls. Also, the princesses don't like to dawdle and are
notorious for playing through.
While Casper has played a vital role in legitimizing and
promoting the Trophy, his relationship with Hassan II runs much
deeper. He has been a guest at a number of the king's birthday
parties and New Year's Eve bashes. "I feel like I'm half
Moroccan and half American," Casper says. "I often wonder how
all this could've happened."
Although the Trophy has always attracted a few high-profile
players, the tournament will never be mistaken for a major
championship loaded with top-ranked pros. That is not the point.
"This tournament is really about the amateurs, not us," says
Price. That kind of attitude has been carefully cultivated by
tournament officials. "When we invite the pros, we're looking
for a blend of elder statesmen and young up-and-comers," says
Rich Katz, Casper's agent, who as vice president of Pinnacle
Enterprises is in charge of rounding up the American Tour
players. "But the Number 1 criterion for selecting the pros is
their rapport with the amateurs." Good thing, too, because, as
McCumber says, "What's different about this pro-am is that we
don't just play together, we eat dinner together, shop together,
bus to the course together, you name it."
Some genuine relationships come out of all the bonding. Last
year a soon-to-be PGA Tour rookie named Chris Smith got along so
famously with his amateur partner, Gene Norris, a Cleveland auto
dealer, that Smith, his wife and their baby stayed at Norris's
house in La Quinta, Calif., during most of the Tour's West Coast
swing. The pros get a more standard reward for all the
schmoozing: a guaranteed appearance fee and all expenses paid
for two. This makes the Trophy something of a mellow working
vacation at the end of the long, stressful season.
The relaxed atmosphere yields a delightful side effect--it keeps
the amateurs' potentially prickly country club egos in check.
"The competition is very low-key," says Douglas McCorkindale,
the vice chairman of Gannett Company. McCorkindale is a six
handicapper and a member at some of the most exclusive golf
clubs in North America (Burning Tree, Congressional, Mid-Ocean,
Oak Hill, Pine Valley, Robert Trent Jones and Winged Foot). He
is just the type A golfer who might be expected to come to
Morocco frothing at the prospect of taking home some hardware.
"Actually, I couldn't even tell you what the prizes are," he
says. (Gaudy trophies and plaques, it turns out.) "The
tournament is really an excuse to come over and experience
another country and its culture."
With that in mind, the trip began with two days of sightseeing
in the wondrous walled city of Marrakesh. It was there that a
sprawling group that included LPGA veteran Nancy Scranton, Bobby
Casper and his wife, Kelly, and Jill Rintoul, wife of Tour pro
Steve Rintoul, ventured into the souk, the labyrinth of shops so
mazelike it can't be navigated without a guide. Theirs was Ahmed
Anji, who, with his crisp blue blazer and dark good looks, cut a
dashing figure amid the chaos. Anji acted as wet nurse, history
professor and, most important, chief negotiator. There is no
theater as melodramatic as the barter for Moroccan goods, a
transaction punctuated by feigned indignations, recriminations
and sometimes even downright scorn. "He wants a camel for the
price of a donkey," one shopkeeper boomed in Arabic, which Anji
translated with a smirk. After a particularly excruciating
negotiation was consummated between a merchant and Katz, the
group let out a little cheer. The vendor, though, got the last
laugh, pulling out a can of bug spray when Katz, the archetypal
uptight New Yorker, came back for more moments later.
For six days Rabat was the jumping-off point for a number of
excursions, including a road trip to Casablanca and its ancient,
mammoth mosque that can hold up to 100,000 worshipers. After
scanning the ornate main room, Craig Pickering, the president of
iMALL, the Internet's largest shopping service, was moved to
say, "My gosh, it must be a hard four-iron from one end of here
to the other."
It wasn't necessary to leave the hotel to experience some of the
local flavor. Many on the trip were awakened by the low hum of
prayer that emanated from the omnipresent mosques every sunrise.
"It was so enchanting I left my windows open," said Harry
McLear, an investment banker from Kansas City, Mo.
"Morocco is so misunderstood," Anji said during the trip to
Marrakesh. "Americans see what happens in the rest of Northern
Africa, in Algeria, in the Persian Gulf, and they think we're
part of the same bloody game. We're not. Morocco is a country of
peace, of love. We're open-minded and tolerant. All that I wish
is for you to be the same." Charlie Wooten, who owns a
drugstore, a couple of card shops and a liquor store back in
Kansas City, was happy to oblige. "I didn't think this was the
kind of place where my wife and I could have jumped in a rental
car and gone exploring," he said. "This trip was the perfect
introduction to a wonderful country."
Then, taking account of all the golf, cuisine and culture he had
consumed, Wooten had a final thought: "This sure beats the
pro-am at the Bob Hope Desert Classic."