Experiencing the Wonders of Golfing in the Kingdom of Morocco
De gustibus non est disputandum There’s no argument about taste
By: Dr. Barry Lotz
When one is fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a royal event as an invited guest of the king of that country and then to play one of the world’s top 500 best golf courses with PGA Tour members, anticipation, excitement, nervousness and good fortune are just a few of the emotions felt.So, on a recent ten-day trip to Morocco, together with 64 professional golfers from the Senior PGA, PGA and Buy.com Tours and approximately 140 amateur golfers, media and their wives, the Royal Air Maroc plane departs from New York. The balance of the group, which includes European Tour players and media, was meeting us in Morocco for a grand total of 275 people.
Billy Casper, the 69-year-old former two-time US Open and Masters Champion and 51-tournament winner, was making his 26th annual pilgrimage to a land whose monarch, King Hassan II, simply adored Billy. Their friendship dated back to when Billy was younger (1969) and continues with the current King Mohammed VI. One of the highlights of the trip was the renewal of wedding vows of Billy and Shirley Casper in full Moroccan regalia. The other was watching Billy go non-stop both on and off the golf course.
Another highlight of the Trophy tournament is that it is played as a Pro-Am format. The pros and some of the amateur participants play hard, and their game faces are most discernible when the tournament starts. The intensity, however, also carries over to the marketplace (the medina) where, through Shirley Casper’s contacts, the best quality and best prices, especially for silver pieces and High Atlas Mountain carpets, have already been researched.
At this year’s event, King Mohammed VI was not available to attend due to an Arab Summit in Cairo, but his brother, Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, accompanied by his immaculately attired Royal Guards, was on the first tee to hit the ceremonial drive with Hale Irwin.
Among the pros at this year’s event were Bruce Fleisher, whose wife Wendy, with impeccable taste, is probably the world’s best shopper, Hale and Shirley Irwin and the indomitable Spike McRoy and wife, Rica. Spike, having just won the Buy.com Tour’s first place and a full exemption to the PGA Tour, was in seventh heaven. Shaun Micheel, who eventually won the $50,000 second place, Mark Hensby, Ian Leggatt, Joe Daley, David Sutherland, Joe Ogilvie and Briny Baird, were also part of the US contingent.
All the pros are invited based on their ability to establish a good rapport with the amateurs, simply because they not only play with the amateurs, but they dine together at every meal, shop together, and share the same transportation. The pros receive appearance fees that range over a wide spectrum, but this point aside, it is not unusual for genuine friendships to be cultivated. Some of the pros may even stay at their homes while on a Tour stop.
Past winners of the dazzling, jewel encrusted dagger – the Hassan II Trophy, have included Billy Casper, Nick Price, Payne Stewart and Vijay Singh. This year, the presentation was made by the King’s 19-year-old sister, Princess Lalla Meryem, herself an excellent golfer.
While Morocco and golf at first appear not to blend, the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation has eliminated any doubt whatsoever that Morocco is a premier golf destination.
If there was ever an organization dedicated to the pursuit of golf, the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation is the epitome of a well-oiled, forward-thinking, quintessential sporting body. A cadre of university students working on a part-time assignment for the King Hassan II Tournament specifically handled every whim and desire regarding golf. All are English speaking, uniformed, well groomed, friendly and knowledgeable and made this already splendid golf experience that much better for every participant. From sun up to almost every midnight, these staffers did Morocco justice.
The Royal Moroccan Golf Federation, headed by Driss Basri, has just recently started a similar program to the US First Tee Program. They have handed out 4,000 sets of golf clubs at no charge to young players from underprivileged families throughout Morocco.
The Tournament is played in Rabat, at the Royal Dar Es Salaam multi-course complex designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and is an example of his genius and one of the best courses he ever designed. Maintenance budgets are seemingly unlimited and the course conditions are truly exceptional- worthy of a King! Cork trees permeate the courses and the majority of these have been stripped of their bark for the manufacture, two years later, of excellent wine corks. The club’s white-overalled caddies are punctual, courteous to a fault and excellent at giving yardage distances, club selection, pace and the breaks of the green albeit in broken English.
This fabulous course of 6702 metres (7,372 yards) is where Robert Trent Jones makes all the rules. This par 73 layout is a veritable fortress. Scoring less than 70 is something very few professionals manage to achieve. It is vital to make an accurate drive, for the trees and the sand give you very little leeway. And then there is the water…
The Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salaam Golf Club which makes the ninth hole a living legend&one of many here to remember forever. The tee is placed on a crescent- shaped bank of a large lake that is 172 metres, (199 yards) from the green. And, as the seventeenth at TPC at Sawgrass (Florida) has shown, there is nothing quite as intimidating as a target green surrounded by water. Here anticipation of disaster shrinks, in the mind’s eye, what is an adequately sized green. Also distracting is the beauty of the setting: flamingoes, ducks and geese add to the effect. Leading to either side of the green, are what can be best described as two humpback wooden bridges creating a setting that has often been referred to as a scene taken from a piece of Willowware china. If you concur with Alistair Mackenzie’s statement that “One of the objects in placing hazards is to give the players as much pleasurable excitement as possible” then this hole fits that description to a tee. The pros playing in this tournament agreed wholeheartedly!
Water is also an ever-present hazard along the 481 metres (526 yards) of the twelfth hole, closing off the angles to its green. On the other side, it takes on the aspect of a source of beauty, a sublime mirror for a series of Roman columns, which came from the ancient city of Volubilis, Morocco.
The Blue Course at the Royal Dar Es Salaam Golf Club.
Bushes of white daisies, beds of wild flowers, pink, orange and red, carpets of violet blooms: the fairways have a pastoral charm. The eleventh hole for example: a romantic and sublime par 4 hides a green nestled between clumps of eucalyptus, a bunker of red sand and a pond with a population of water hens. This 18-hole par 72 course is not as demanding as the red course. But you cannot take anything for granted – the blue course can still surprise you.
The Green Course at the Royal Dar Es Salaam Golf Club.
Fewer surprises and a greater feeling of being at ease on this relaxed 9-hole course, consisting of only par 3 and par 4 holes, which are essentially designed to entertain. But don’t let yourself be distracted by the little ox-pecker birds that will be following every stroke of your play!
Royal Golf Club (18 holes)
How magical for a golfer to play on this par 72 course, which is set in an extraordinary landscape where the beauty of the snow capped Atlas mountains blends in the Mediterranean panorama of olive and palm trees, and what a delight to stride the length of its 6,200 metres (6780 yards). One of the most memorable holes on this course is number 16. The green is hidden behind two grassy mounds, separated by a bunker, plus an additional hazard exists where high palm trees block the approach angles to the green.
This is one of the newest golf courses in Morocco. With its 18 holes, 6657 metre (7280 yards) length and par 72, is located in the heart of a magnificent olive grove, just opposite the Royal Golf Club of Marrakech. Also, on the golf course is the $1,200-a-night Amanjena Hotel. Built in a style reminiscent of a Kasbah, Amanjena has a Zen-like atmosphere with 34 guestrooms, or pavilions, and seven two-story suites all with private courtyards, lounging sofa and dining area. The Club Amelkis layout has similar attributes of a fine Scottsdale golf course such as Grayhawk and Troon North’s perfectly manicured and aesthetically pleasing fairways, greens and bunkers. Throughout the course’s 7,280 yards, designed by world renowned golf architect Cabell B. Robinson, breathtaking oases are sculptured from the land and dominated from a distance by the eternally snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
The accommodations are outstanding with the La Mamounia, Winston Churchill’s favorite hotel, living up to its reputation as one of the finest hotels in the world. With the hotels hushed surroundings, beautiful gardens and pool areas, one feels like royalty.
The La Mamounia Menzeh Suite
The art deco interiors throughout the hotel rooms and the fabulously comfortable low beds are synonymous with elegant taste and class. Directly across the street is a wonderful, walled private ten-acre driving range to practice your irons or short game. While on the range, an impromptu lesson with one of the pros, Ian Leggatt, corrected a bunker shot flaw I had developed. Though our stay in Marrakech was just two nights, it was highlighted by the tour of the main marketplace, the medina, which is the center of commerce and social activity and everything else one can imagine. The snake charmers and the horse drawn carriages dominate the scenescape.
Guided visits to Casablanca, Fez and Tangiers give the wives and golfers time to explore the medinas and countryside. A special group visit to the Royal Stables is also on the itinerary as is a horse drawn carriage ride through Marrakech’s marketplace immediately upon arrival.
The Rabat Hilton, our other hotel, a former US Command headquarters during World War II, was recently renovated and it, too, offered five-star accommodations and service. Another immaculately maintained driving range and short-game practice facility was located at the rear of the hotel.
Wake up calls are not a problem at either hotel as the muezzin wail every morning from their minarets at the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech and from different mosques in Rabat, all beginning at 5.30 a.m. So if you are light sleeper, earplugs are suggested.
And then there is the food and lavish parties. The dinner at Chez Ali outside of Marrakech, a restaurant unlike any other in the States and probably in the world, was totally amazing. More like a movie set for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
There are thunderous Berber horseman firing their “moukhala” (old powder charged rifles) as patrons surround the arena, startling many a diner and spectator. Balancing acts, folk dancing, Moroccan music and a fireworks display were thoroughly entertaining. The food was a seven-course meal served with precision military moves by waiters presenting the food in oversized cauldrons of lamb, couscous, turkey, pigeon pie and other delicacies that seemed to be never ending. There is so much food served in seven courses, that unless forewarned of the volume, most people couldn’t get past the second course!
Everyday, the lunch buffets at the Royal Dar Es Salaam golf course were culinary feasts. Breaking bread with the pros was both enjoyable and intriguing after a round of golf.
The black-tie event at the Ambassadors residence, though the US Presidential election was unsettled at the time, was elegance personified, as was the other formal party where the aforementioned Casper’s wedding vows were renewed.
If you are wondering why this best-kept secret has stayed this way, there is a simple answer; there is no advertising of this event. It is all by word-of-mouth. Many of the guests are returning for their fifth visit. At less than $10,000 a couple, they obviously feel this to be value for the fairy tale they are living. So if you are wondering who are the devotees and who can get on the next trip, you need to have the following information as this year’s event will be the 30th Anniversary and the Federation will be going out of their way to spare no expense to make this the best Tournament ever held. Pinnacle Enterprises/Bill Casper Golf Management Company is the lead organizer. Rich Katz, a gentleman throughout, is the primary contact for the media and tour pros. He is based in Virginia (703.761.4111). Joan Short, the epitome of a knowledgeable and a true travel professional, through her Worldwide Golf and Travel (949.644.8490), handles all aspects of the amateurs’ participation.
You can be rest assured, that from the time you turn over your passports to Joan Short, until you receive them upon departure from Morocco, your entire trip is like a “Magic Carpet Ride”. The Federation spares no expense. The food in the first- class and business-class compartments is served with three forks, your luggage is at your room upon arrival at the La Mamounia Hotel, and a police escort of the luxurious busses the Federation uses, whisks you directly from the airport to the hotel. Old world service that simply is second to none!
The return trip to New York was a non-stop conversation between new friends all trying to outdo each other with their experiences on the golf course, their food intake and shopping expertise! Of all the compliments circulating, the most often repeated was the accessibility to and the friendliness of all the tour pros.
What a wonderful experience – a golf addict’s fantasy trip as well as a cultural banquet of exotic sights and sounds!
By the way, the winners this year were Roger Chapman of England ($100,000) and Europe’s Elisabeth Estell ($13,500)
Barry Lotz, J.D., Ph.D. is the director of the Professional Golf Teachers Association of America. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the California Golf Writers Association, and serves both as a Consultant and Mediator to the golf industry. He is also the author of numerous books, including “333 Best Web Sites for Golfers” and his current book, “How to Build Business Relationships Through Golf” is in the Top Ten Golf Business Book’s best seller list.