Golfing in Morocco

Golfing in Morocco

Morocco is not one huge sand trap. In this 1970 masterpiece, one of golf's best writers discovers a verdant country whose ruler is bent on making it one long par five.

What could happen in the middle of this story is that the writer might decide to hurl Morocco to the ground and ravage it. Nothing obscene, mind you. Just a gentle, loving tussle in a platter of couscous while his heart thumps ecstatically and the neckcloth on his Foreign Legion cap billows in the soft Marrakesh breeze. The thing is, Morocco grabs you here, right here, like a haunting song. But even before I went there recently on a golf assignment, I had been carrying on a rather violent affair with the country. Casbahs and French Legionnaires had done it. And harem girls. And Humphrey Bogart running a bar in Casablanca. What chance did I have on a visit?None, of course, which explains why I shall soon be rejoining a group of contented Berbers in Tiznit, there to enjoy the quiet life of carving silver gunpowder horns and perhaps helping tend the greens of the Robert Trent Jones course that King Hassan II is certain to have constructed one day in the Anti-Atlas.

I thought I knew what to expect in the way of golf in Morocco. I knew the king was building courses as if he had heard that Charlie Farrell was opening a racket club in Agadir. I was aware he had also been flying in Claude Harmon between nines to put some altitude on his low darters. But a golf course there, I felt, would have to combine all that was beautiful and serene about the St. Louis zoo with the battle of the Kasserine Pass.

For example, it was easy for me to envision this wondrous Trent Jones par four where one drove from a nest of cobras, aimed for a meandering camel on the right, drew it back between a couple of Sahara dunes and hoped to avoid being stymied by the only living palm in the country. The second shot would require a full carry over an old Nazi ammunition bunker, would have to bounce safely over a herd of sheep, glance off a mosque and come to rest on a putting surface occupied by acrobats, storytellers and clusters of veiled women.

In all of my stupidity, in fact, I have to confess that I didn't really know where Morocco was. I knew it was over there somewhere in Africa or Arabia, somewhere in the land of Yvonne DeCarlo and Peter Lorre, in the land of dark, narrow streets, magic rugs, tribesmen and a lot of guys wearing tarbooshes and trying to buy a visa.

I had inquired of Claude Harmon, "What do you do over there besides get your jewels stolen and watch Sydney Greenstreet auction off your wife?"

Like myself, Claude tends to exaggerate, but he has an excuse, having devoted his career to curing the slices of millionaires, presidents and kings. In any case, his reply was encouraging.

"It's the most beautiful country in the world," he said, "next to the good old U.S.A. And it's just as friendly as can be. You're gonna eat it up like a drive and a wedge. And, hey. The king is my man."

Claude Harmon was the king's man, actually. For a couple of years Claude had been going over to Morocco to bring Hassan II's game down from 110 to 85. Claude had been getting permission from his two clubs--Winged Foot in the summer and Thunderbird in the winter-- to go over and watch the king take divots in Rabat, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Fez, Tangier, anywhere there happened to be nine holes hidden inside the palace walls or tucked away on a hillside or creeping through a palm grove or seared by the Atlantic or Mediterranean sun. This led some of C laude's friends to invent a slogan for him: Have overlapping grip, will travel.

Originally, according to Claude, the king wanted Tommy Armour because he had come into possession of an instruction book by Armour and decided to invite him over. Tommy thought about it but eventually declined, his friends joked, because he discovered that Morocco wasn't in Westchester County.

Claude, the king was told, had a reputation as the most accomplished teaching pro in the U.S., a man who had once captured the Masters (1948) even though he hadn't played in a single tournament all that winter, who could go around Seminole in something like even threes and in his later years had taught such power brokers, statusmakers, Bob Hopes and patriotic Americans as Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Anyhow, that is the rough background on how this all got started. Claude and the king are mostly what this story isall about, but there will be something of Morocco in it, too, I hope, and, of course, in the minor role of casual typist and thoroughgoing tourist there is, clearing the throat, me.

I Find It Fascinating That Of The Few monarchs left today--twenty-four by my last count--one is not only captivated by golf but has sort of bent himself toward making his country one long par five, to promote tourism, and has, at the same time, developed a very special relationship with an American pro. Claude Harmon had made four trips to Morocco before I joined him there last spring for his fifth. During this period of almost three years Claude and the king had exchanged more gifts than words. Claude had not known exactly what to expect in the way of reward until after his first visit. "I went out of goodwill," he said. Goodwill became a thousand a day plus expenses. Plus as many swords, daggers, plates, trays, leather goods and small jewelry as Claude could admire during his free-time shopping tours. Claude would pause to glance at something, a guide would notice it, he'd tell the king, and it would later arrive at Winged Foot.

A Mark III Continental arrived at Claude's home one day, and a cigar box full of cash--in case Claude wanted some undeclared income. "I declared it all," said Claude.

Things also turned up for Claude's wife, Alice, and for the clubs he represented. For straightening out a duck hook, one might presume: some antique jewelry and a Moroccan belt for Alice. And for ironing the curl out of a slice, one might also presume: a $25,000 silvertea service for Thunderbird and one on its way for Winged Foot.

But what could one give a generous monarch, Claude often wondered.

"I don't know," I told him once. "His very own junta?"

On each trip Claude would take along dozens of golf clubs and bags and shoes to pass around among the king's friends and aides. He would take the king a wedge or putter or odd club he might not have seen or heard about. He once had Ben Hogan make up a few dozen balls with king hassan II engraved on them. He also had Hogan make an engraved set of clubs. Claude carried over balls, clubs, head covers, gloves, wedges, sand irons, weird putters, even a set of gold Winged Foot cuff links.

Morocco's Oldest Course Is In Marrakesh and it consists of eighteen holes woven through lovely woods, with occasional glimpses of the snow-peaked Atlas Mountains. One doesn't find a swimming pool or tennis courts at Royal Golf de Marrakesh. In fact, one seldom finds any people there at all, much less caddies. You lug your own clubs and hope to find someone mowing greens along the way to tell you where the next tee is. But it was handsome, quiet and pleasant, and always there were the mountains rising above the palms and poplars. The holes, as on all of the courses, aren't tremendously long, which does much for the golfer's ego. But I gather that no one spends much time looking for a stray shot in the uncluttered rough, unless, of course, one has a fetish for disturbing cobras.

Like every other place on the globe, Marrakesh is finding itself being modernized. Only two blocks away from the Mamounia Hotel, a mammoth place of elegance and gardens said to have been Winston Churchill's favorite, is a Holiday Inn and a friendly neighborhood Avis office where a cute Arab attendant wore a miniskirt as short as any on a cocktail waitress along the Sunset Strip. Sadly, one thing is unavoidable in Marrakesh. You can't sit in a hotel lobby having your mint tea without overhearing an American in a summer sport shirt reaching to his navel, crepe-soled shoes and a Midwestern accent telling a Frenchman about his fun-filled days at the University of Ohio and what a damn hard time he was going to have trying to fit three sons-in-law into his roofing company back home.

The Best Golf Course In Morocco For Anyone, king or peasant--at least the best until Robert Trent Jones gets finished with all of the complexes he's designing inMarrakesh, Rabat and Agadir--lies about forty minutes north of Casablanca, on the Atlantic. Royal Golf de Mohammedia it is called. The resort town is Mohammedia, naturally. A couple of large luxury hotels sprawl on the beach, and there is a yacht basin, but the main attraction appears to be the golf club. The course is flat but heavily wooded and quite scenic along the bay, where the ninth and eighteenth fairways lie adjacent to the water. (In Casablanca proper there is another course to which the tourist has entree, but the serious golfer would be just as well off hitting a few chip shots in a public park. This is the Royal Golf d'Anfa, a nine-hole layout inside a small racetrack.)

But Casablanca had far more mystery when it was situated on Warner's back lot than it seems to have today. I couldn't find Rick's CafŽ AmŽricain or Ingrid Bergman or anybody.

There are only four other golf courses that any Moroccan knows about in his country. One is a nine-hole course in Tangier that is notable for only one thing. Playing it with Claude on an occasion a year ago, the king warmed up by hitting a few pitch shots onto a tennis court and then by driving a dozen or so balls off a cliff toward the Rock of Gibraltar. Another course is in the Tyrolean-type village of Ifrane, an hour or so by car from Fez. It isn't much--"A hotel par three that hasn't been mowed in a week" pretty well describes it--and the king plays it only rarely. Then there's Royal Guard in Rabat andInezgane in Agadir, both nine-hole layouts.

So much for the courses that the public sees. There are others that only His Majesty and those who loiter with royalty can see and play. These are courses Hassan has had built inside the walls of his various palaces. There are nine holes, fully lighted, within the main palace in Rabat. There are eighteen holes behind the walls of the summer palace on the Atlantic in Skhirat. There are nine holes inside the palace grounds in the ancient town of Mekns. And nine more inside the palace at Fez. All of which add up to forty-five more than most of us have for working out our duck hooks in private.

But before anyone starts thinking that Hassan II is greedy with his golf, listen to all of the things Robert Trent Jones is doing for him--and Morocco.

Soon to be completed in Rabat, for instance, is the Royal Golf Club of Rabat, a forty-five-hole project complete with clubhouse and cottages. Not only has the king had Jones design a championship eighteen holes--"Worthy of holding the World Cup," he ordered--but he also has had Jones build another eighteen for package tours, and then finally a nine-hole course for beginners.

The complex is built on rolling terrain through cork and oak trees. One course has a multiplicity of bunkers, the other plateaued greens and an island hole.

As elaborate as the Rabat complex is, it only got Hassan warmed up. Rabat was for diplomats, and tourists jumping off toward other places. Places like Marrakesh. Yes, Marrakesh. That would be the city to do something really spectacular in. Jones was no more than half finished with Rabat when His Majesty hired him again. Do me Marrakesh, he said.

So what's happening there these days is this: On three thousand acres near the Marrakesh course I mentioned earlier, a modest little thing called the Club of the King's Friends is going out and up and around. Championship layout. A bit of Dorado Beach. A bit of Sotogrande. A bit of Williamsburg. Trees. Sand. Water. And those Atlas Mountains peering down on it all. Another forty-five holes in all, like Rabat, but the Club of the King's Friends, the main course, is being confined within walls and encircled by a moat. A mall leads through the center to a cul-de-sac where condominiums will be built, overlooking the course. An apartment complex for members is also planned, and a polo field. Plus Alpine skiing in the Atlas most of the year, with helicopters available to take the golfer skiing in fifteen minutes. (Jones was recently commissioned to start another project, this one farther south and on the coast, in Agadir. It, too, will contain forty-five holes.)

For all of the work he has done, Jones has seen King Hassan only five or six times, and only then on a golf course, walking along with him, chatting between shots. They have never had a meal together, and the architect has never seen him at night. This probably isn't unusual. I haven't dined that often with kings, either.

As The Guidebooks Say, Fez Is The "Heart Of Morocco," the onetime capital, the spiritual and intellectual center of the country. Thus, it was more than appropriate that inFez, which is about as ancient as a place can get and not be in China, I finally caught up with Claude and his pupil.

One of the king's cars, bearing a driver who believed himself to be the Arab equivalent of Cale Yarborough, had transported me the 125 miles from Rabat to Fez in, like, zap. There a two-engine plane was landing at a deserted airport. Out of the plane stepped Claude and his personal guide-friend-envoy for this particular trip, the Moroccan consul general in New York, Abdesslam Jaidi.

Jaidi spoke good English and good everything else, so the heat was off. Jaidi's job was largely that of entertaining Claude and seeing that he got where the king wanted him to be each day. His job was also to bargain for Claude in the Casbahs and try to prevent him from buying every brass tray and Moroccan carpet in existence.

"Claude, you can't cure the economic ills of our country singlehanded," Jaidi would say.

"Don't you understand?" Claude would reply. "I love your country, Monsieur Jaidi."

Fez is cradled by hills, but it crawls up the sides of some of them, its old fading cream structures and brown ruins ringed by rich green beauty. For all of its age, you can do things in Fez you wouldn't dare do or try to do in, let us say, Mexico or Spain--like eat anything, drink the tap water and get one-day dry cleaning. It is simply a remarkably pretty, enchanting and friendly city with all different kinds of lofty balconies and dark dungeons to dine and drink in and gardens to stroll in.

The Casbah or medina--or old city, as they call it--is twice the size of any other in Morocco and twice blessed with atmosphere. Deep in the Casbah of Fez one can wander into a doorway, be led through damp corridors of carpet and leather to the antique jewelry room, there to be offered a chair, a glass of hot mint tea, a plate of cakes--and a pipe. Two puffs and you buy the whole store.

Frankly, despite all of Claude's stories I didn't really know what to expect from His Majesty. And when the day came that I would be invited to accompany Claude inside the palace walls at Fez and to stroll nine holes with him--as Trent Jones had done--I was a little nervous.

"I hope there's some atmosphere around," I said to Claude. "I mean, it would be kind of nifty to see a king play golf around some ruins or something."

Claude said, "How does twelve hundred years old grab you?"

Inside the burnt-orange walls of the palace at Fez there was, sure enough, a nine-hole golf course. It had grass that was green. It had smooth putting surfaces with pins. Rough. Water hazards. Par fives. And all around it were these twenty- to fifty-foot walls, looking as though they had always been there, as if Idriss II, or somebody, had known a long time before the Scots about the rut iron.

On days when Hassan plays golf, a lot of people turn up. Mostly aides and servants and simply close friends. Claude, Jaidi and I got there a few minutes ahead of His Majesty, and I got to notice a great deal of hustling about. A couple of Harley-Davidson carts were driven out, one carrying three sets of clubs, all belonging to King Hassan, the other carrying refreshments.

Several Arabs wearing fezes and djellabas neatly spread out many pairs of golf shoes from which His Majesty would make a selection. They also spread out half a dozen sweaters in cellophane wrappers for the same purpose.

A number of men with briefcases stood by, obviously hoping to conduct some business between swings. Some diplomats, the Moroccan chief of world affairs and an official of the police were there, as were the head of the paratroopers and a very good Moroccan amateur. These last three would play with Hassan. Claude would walk around and give a tip now and then.

Suddenly something dawned on me.

"Listen, uh, Claude," I said. "How do we greet His Majesty?I mean, I know I don't say, 'Hi, KingHow's your mom and them?' Do I kneel or what?"

Claude said, "He's quite a fellow. A young man. Tough. Well educated. Speaks a lot of languages."

"So what do I do?"

Claude said, "He's a king, you know. No mistake about who the king is."

"Yeh, I know," I said. "So?"

"You're an American," Claude said.

"Yeah, right."

"Well, you just walk up to him and stick out your hand and say, 'How do you do,' and look him right in the eye."

"Oh, good," I said. "Then I don't have to bow and kiss his hand like I would Hogan."

I Don't Know Whether I Expected The Palace Gates to open so King Hassan could gallop in on an Arabian stallion with a hundred Bedouin warriors, or what. But I do know that I didn't expect him to arrive driving the lead car in a motorcade himself, and for that car to be a Chevrolet station wagon.

"He loves cars," Claude whispered. "He'll turn up in a Maserati tomorrow and a Volkswagen the next day. He's probably trying this one out. Probably thinking about buying a fleet of them."

Everybody lined up to greet the king, including all of the people in all of the limousines behind him. The custom is that the king sticks out his right hand and a Moroccan gets to kiss the back of it. If the king holds him in favor, he also gets to kiss the palm. Very close friends and family get a back, a palm and a cheek. This went on for a while and then Claude shook hands and forthwith presented his writer pal.

Following Claude's advice, I self-assuredly stepped forward, took King Hassan's hand, looked him straight in the forehead and said, "Good Majes, your morningsty. Real pleasure. Fine. Sure is."

He was a bit tiny for a king, I thought. About five-six. He was swarthy and had black sideburns stealing down in mod fashion from thinning hair on top that he combed straight across. He was pretty mod, all around, in fact. He wore a pair of tight, pocketless flairs and buckled loafers, and he had gotten out of the car in dark granny glasses. I decided that he could pass easily in Beverly Hills for the script supervisor on a hit TV series.

He moved around briskly, choosing his shoes and sweater. But he didn't put them on. Somebody else did that for him. And the singular job of one valet was to hold an odd-looking instrument that resembled a large pair of tweezers. It was a cigarette holder. The king smoked a lot and rather than just drop his cigarette on the ground between golf shots, he just held it out and the tweezers grabbed it.

Now he had a three-wood and went to the practice area to take several vigorous swings before the game. Claude trailed quietly after him with his hands folded behind his back. Two of Morocco's best pros, who have played in several World Cups, were present, and their jobs were equally divided. One selected each club for His Majesty, and the other saw that he never got a bad lie, even in the rough.

What most of this added up to, I realized, was that when kings play golf they never have to bend over.

The king's swing would not send Bert Yancey scurrying to the practice tee. He took a wide stance with both toes pointed outward. With his shoulders hunched up, he swung aggressively with a long, flapping backswing and a leaning-forward follow-through. Still, he hit some good ones, favoring a medium to low hook.

"Too fast," he cried of his swing a few times.

"Hmmm," Claude said, agreeing.

Turning to me, Claude said, "You can never let a pupil think you're disappointed in him. You can never let him think he isn't improving. The secret to teaching golf to someone is to show a deep interest in his game, no matter how bad it might be, and continually offer encouragement. If I just tell him one or two little things today, he'll be happy. I'll pick my spots."

The king, now ready, had a small surprise for us. He led us all, maybe twenty people, toward a corner of the palace wall, through an entrance, up a long, high rock stairwell to the very top of the corner wall. Perched there, overlooking all of Fez and all of the palace grounds, was a little grassy knoll--alas, the first tee.

"We tee off," said His Majesty, "from many centuries ago." And he smiled.

The first hole was considered a par four, a straightaway drive, mindful of the wall running down the left side of the fairway with a small pond in front of the green. Although the king played it in four with a driver and a wedge, an American touring pro would use about a three-iron. It would be a par three.

As we walked along on the first few holes, Claude explained that His Majesty likes a joke or two. Indeed, I noticed in one of his golf bags there was a popgun.

"He'll sometimes sneak up behind somebody who's getting ready to tee off and shoot the gun between his legs, blowing the ball off the tee just as the fellow swings," said Claude.

"Hey, that's really funny," I said.

There had also been a day when one of His Majesty's golfing companions from the court showed up in wild, multicolored slacks. So the king ordered a pair of scissors, which were promptly produced, and went about cutting off the man's trousers above the knees.

Just Before I Got There, Hassan Had Played in Rabat with the Apollo 12 crew--Conrad, Bean and Gordon--Claude told me. "They didn't play too good. I told him, 'Your Majesty, they can play the big ball in the sky but they can't play the little ball on the ground.' He liked th at."

Claude had said that although the king was never with you in the evening, he arranged most of your entertainment. And he always knew where you had been and with whom. Armed with this knowledge, I was not surprised when he asked, "How was dinner last night?"

We had gone to the home of a wealthy businessman of Fez named Mernissi. Whiskey and ice were displayed on a center table in the living room, a help-yourself favor to the thirsty Americans. Few Moroccans drink. Scads of servants moved about, passing snacks and placing incense burners on the floor. A Berber orchestra showed up and there was occasional dancing and singing. Scotch, incense and music do not necessarily make an American hungry, but Claude had warned the feast would be spectacular.

And here it came.

A tureen of soup first, with lamb and lentils and lemon. Then shish kebab. Then a smoking platter of lamb knuckles with artichoke stalks and lemon. Then a huge bowl of meatballs with lightly fried eggs on top, floating on a mixture of paprika or chile pepper. Tex-Mex-Moroc, I thought. Next came an equally large serving of whole chickens highly seasoned and swimming in juices. This was followed by an entire barbequed lamb. Then came the couscous, served on this occasion as a dessert with powdered sugar. Finally, there was fruit and hot mint tea.

We dined Moroccan style, which means that one eats only with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. Just reach in and rip it out.

For a napkin there is only your very own huge loaf of crusty bread. You wipe your hand on it, or tear off chunks and dip it in the bowls and platters. Moroccans know where the best pieces of barbequed lamb and seasoned chicken are. My hand followed theirs, to the point, in fact, that one or two of them began to pull off delicate, lean slivers of meat and offerthem to me. "Fine. Sure is," I said.

To say the least, it was the best meal I've ever had.

And so when Hassan asked how our dinner was last night, I couldn't resist preempting Claude.

"It was marvelous," I said. "And what I think I'll do is cut off my right hand and open a restaurant in New York."

His Majesty laughed and repeated the remark to aides.

"He likes a joke," I told Claude.

Along about here, the king's golf suffered a bit. From the fifth or sixth tee he hooked a high one over the palace wall and onto the Boulevard des Saadiens.

"Golf go away, Monsieur Har-moan," he told Claude.

"Golf will come back," Harmon smiled.

Whereupon the king hooked another one over the wall.

"Very bad," he said.

"Golf comes and goes," said Claude.

Whereupon the king hooked a third drive over the wall.

"Golf is gone," he said, shaking his head.

"Golf will come back," said Claude.

King Hassan finished out the nine holes in something like forty-three. He hit a few more bad shots, but he also hit some good ones, including a fine three-wood to the last green, where he picked up his fifth par of the round.

He went then to the practice tee, chatted with his friends for a moment, signed a few documents, read through some papers an aide handed him and then began soaring several practice shots off into the distance. They were remarkably straight. The king looked up and smiled.

"Golf come back," he said.

As we were driven back to our hotel in Fez, we passed along the Boulevard des Saadiens. Through the car window I saw a man in a djellaba sitting cross-legged on the grass looking at an object in his hand.

It was most likely a golf ball that had king hass an II engraved on it. But the man would not know what it was, I figured. And he would never understand what it might mean to his country.

Tabbouleh and Tee

In 1971, a year after this article originally appeared, His Majesty instituted the Hassan Deux Trophy, an annual pro-am tournament held every November at Robert Trent Jones's 7,329- yard par-seventy-three Red course at Royal Dar Es Salaam. To this day, players from both the U.S. and European tours, as well as around 150 amateurs, hit the road to Morocco for ten days of banquets, exotic excursions and royal events that make the Hope and Crosby Classics look like, well, clambakes. For around $5,500, you fly to Marrakesh, stay in luxury hotels, play the best of Morocco's sixteen courses and eat couscous with previous winners such as Payne Stewart and 1998 champ Santiago Luna, as well as Hassan's son, Prince Moulay Rachid. The three-day competition concludes with a lavish ceremony where Rachid's brother, Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed, awards the champion a jewel-encrusted sword. Though security issues preclude the sixty-nine-year-old king from playing in the event, he remains devoted to the game. His palace course in Agadir has hosted the Moroccan Open, and in 1996, he celebrated his pro-am's silver anniversary by adding a grove of California redwoods to Royal Dar Es Salaam, to symbolize the friendship between Morocco and the U.S. For information on next year's event, call the U.S. Committee for Royal Moroccan Golf Federation at 703-448-4400 (ext. 105).

Reprinted courtesy of Sports Illustrated September 28, 1970. Copyright ©1970, Time Inc. "Where a Golf Nut Is King" by Dan Jenkins. All rights reserved.

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