Golf in Morocco: The King and Billy Casper

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The Hassan II Trophy, held last week in Morocco, was named for the man who ruled that country from 1961 until his death, in 1999—as I wrote in my previous post. Shortly after Hassan died, a journalist described his legacy as “economic backwardness, rising demographic pressures, widespread corruption, vast and open disparities of income, urban overpopulation, rural decay, illiteracy, inadequate public services, underutilization of resources and environmental destruction.”  But he loved golf! To help him learn the game and keep him company while he played, he imported a number of American pros, among them Claude Harmon (who was his teacher), Butch Harmon (who served as the head pro at Dar es Salaam Golf Club, in Rabat), and Billy Casper (who came to like the King and the country so much that he described himself to me as “half-Moroccan.”) That’s Casper on the left in the photo below, and King Hassan in the middle:

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During my first trip to Morocco, in 2000, I got to visit the royal stables, in Bouznika, with two other journalists—something tourists ordinarily aren’t allowed to do. Bouznika is linked to Rabat by one of the best highways in Morocco, a four-lane expressway that could almost pass for an American Interstate, but our driver was unable to find it, so we traveled instead on back roads, stopping every few miles to ask unlikely people for directions.
The landscape along our route appeared to have been constructed from rubble with a thin layer of litter spread unevenly on top. We saw children tending small flocks of ill-looking sheep on the shoulders of the road; greasy shops that appeared to specialize in the sale of bald tires; old men defecating in the middle of otherwise infertile-looking farm plots; and abandoned buildings that were distinguishable from their occupied neighbors mainly by their lack of satellite-television antennas.
At one point, our driver asked for directions from a grimy man and two small grimy boys, who were cooking sardine-size fish in the ashes of a smoky fire within a few feet of the roadway. The boys would languidly throw a couple of fish into the fire, then languidly pull them out and pop them, whole, into their mouths. They didn’t seem to know where we were going, either—but eventually we found the stables and were able to admire king’s extensive collection of Arabian horses, which live in stalls furnished almost like hotel rooms and are closely attended by workers whose main job is to clean up after them as they amble over carpet-like turf. We also got a distant look at one of the King’s private golf courses. It was part of the same complex, and at that moment (as at virtually all moments) it was being played by no one. That’s me in the photo below; the golf course is in the background:

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Casper was the architect. He said the King had asked him to design a course for the site, and that he made drawings and sent them to the palace but ever heard anything back. “Then someone told me the course had been built—and from my drawings,” Casper said. It turned out that the King’s construction crew had simply superimposed Casper’s layout on the existing fields, and had done none of the indicated contouring. As a result, the fairways all run as the fields used to run, and the greens are all flat (and huge). Casper told me he had never played it—something he could have done only at the invitation of the King. Another journalist explained: “Morocco is a real kingdom, not a constitutional monarchy, and the King thinks like a king.” In other words, inviting the architect to give his own course a try is something that wouldn’t occur to him. We did get to sit on the roof of the King’s personal clubhouse, though—and that’s where I am in the photo above.

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Golf in Morocco: Silver Tongs for the King’s Cigarette

This past week, the European Tour was in Morocco, for the Hassan II Trophy. I attended that tournament in 2000, and I liked Morocco so much that, a few months later, I went back, with my wife and our two children. The Trophy didn’t become an official tour event until 2010, and when I was there it was played on a different course, but the broadcast of this year’s event brought back a lot of happy memories. Here I am having tea at the royal stables, in Bouznika:

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The tournament is named for (and was founded by) King Hassan II, who ruled Morocco from 1961 until his death, in 1999—the year before I visited. Hassan was a passionate golfer. He employed a squadron of caddies (one of whom was responsible for gripping the royal cigarette with a pair of silver tongs while the King swung his club), and shot mediocre scores that easily could have been worse (because kings are not obligated to play from bad lies or extricate themselves from bunkers). Hassan viewed golf not merely as a palliative to the tedium of absolute power but also as a potential bridge between his country and the United States—then, as now, the world’s most enticing source of exportable prosperity.

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Hassan took up golf during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, whose widely chronicled enthusiasm had imbued the game with sort of hokey Free World allure—as did the contemporaneous rise of Arnold Palmer, who was golf’s first television star, and, a little later, the emergence of Jack Nicklaus, who turned pro the year of Hassan’s coronation.

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The King was not a natural player, however, and by the mid-1960s he was looking for an American instructor to help him bring his scores out of the triple digits. He settled on Claude Harmon, who had won the Masters in 1948 and was the head pro at Winged Foot. Harmon made numerous visits to Morocco in the late sixties and early seventies, in return for which the King gave him, among other things, jeweled daggers, rugs, swords, a cigar box stuffed with cash and a Lincoln Continental Mark III. Harmon eventually moved his family to Rabat. In the early seventies, his eldest son, Butch—later the teacher of Tiger Woods—served as the head pro at Royal Dar es Salaam Golf Club, where the Trophy was held in 2000.

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During the tournament’s formative years, Hassan II had concerns unrelated to golf. In 1971, his forty-second birthday party was crashed by more than a thousand rebellious soldiers; they killed nearly a hundred guests before the King, who had hidden in a bathroom during the worst of the shooting, effected a change of heart in one of the revolt’s commanders by looking him in the eye and reciting the first verse of the Koran. (The rebel knelt and kissed his sovereign’s hand.) The following year, the King’s plane was attacked in the air by four F-5 fighters from his own Air Force. One of the plane’s engines was destroyed, but it managed to land in Rabat—where the rebels continued to strafe it until the King grabbed his plane’s radio and shouted, “Stop firing! The tyrant is dead!” Both incidents were followed by the inevitable bureaucratic shufflings and summary executions. Then the King went back to working on his game.

To be continued.

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Critical Golf Accessory: Pocket Handkerchief

There are several New Yorker writers and at least one award-winning novelist in this group. Lido Golf Club, Lido Beach, New York, September 21, 2012.

On Friday, at Lido Golf Club, three members of my foursome had an odd thing in common: we were carrying little packs of Kleenex, in response to a tenacious cold that’s been burning its way through the Northeast. Kleenex isn’t an ideal golf accessory, because it goes airborne in a breeze and doesn’t hold up to rain or even dew. On Saturday, back at home, I remembered to carry a handkerchief. As a result, I never did what I have often done when my nose was running on a golf course: find the least disgusting square inch of my golf towel and blow my nose into it.

Handkerchiefs have fallen out of use in the general population, but they’re good for golfers, especially in high winds, or during cold or allergy season. I paid fourteen dollars for a thirteen-pack of Van Heusen cotton handkerchiefs—just right for a week-long golf trip to Scotland or Ireland. If I had any sense, I’d keep at least one clean handkerchief in my golf bag all the time.

Incidentally, Kleenex facial tissues were introduced in 1924 as a “sanitary cold cream remover,” but sales remained modest until six years later, when Kimberly-Clark re-positioned them as disposable handkerchiefs. Times change.  In 2003, one of my nieces, who was eleven, saw her grandfather using a handkerchief and asked, with astonishment, “Is that a cloth Kleenex?” I had handkerchiefs when I was a kid—some with monograms—but I would bet that neither of my children, who are in their twenties, has ever used one.

Daniel Wexler, in his terrific book The Missing Links, devotes a chapter to the original Lido, which was designed by Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Bernard Darwin called it “the finest course in the world,” and Claude Harmon called it “the greatest golf course ever.” Part of the current course—which was designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1965—occupies part of the original property, but suburban tract houses cover much of the old layout, and Jones’s course is nothing special. Anyone interested in golf history should own a copy of The Missing Links—and not only because Wexler was a college roommate of my brother’s.

The modern Lido, with smoke stacks and a landfill on the far shore. JFK International Airport is about nine miles to the left.