Golf in Morocco: A Better Way to Haggle

I visited Morocco on a golf junket in 2000, and although my companions and I spent a lot of our time playing golf we did other stuff, too.

moroccogolfdlo.jpgWe did a fair amount of nosing around in the Jamaa el Fnaa, Marrakech’s huge central square and outdoor marketplace, just outside the front door of our hotel. (You can see both the square and the hotel in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”)

In the square, for a few pennies, you could have your photograph taken with a large snake draped over your shoulders, and then, for a few dollars, have the snake (now slowly wrapping itself around your neck) removed.

snakeguyfnaa Most guidebooks say that the prices in Moroccan markets are highly negotiable, and that tourists should haggle aggressively. I dutifully bargained a little at one vendor’s stall—and bought my son a key chain attached to a chunk of plastic in which a scorpion had been embedded—but I hated feeling that I was going to the mat over a trivial sum with a man who clearly needed every dirham he could lay his hands on.


Then, suddenly, I had a conceptual breakthrough: instead of bargaining down, why not bargain up? I tried my idea first in a taxi, which I was sharing with two other sportswriters. When the driver told us that the fare was eighty dirhams (about eight dollars), I said, “No! A hundred!” He did a perfect cartoon double-take, then looked at me with deep suspicion. I said, in halting schoolboy French, “You are an excellent driver. Eighty is not enough. A hundred and ten!” He then not only laughed but also drove us all the way across a busy intersection, which he had previously seemed inclined to abandon us in the middle of.


A little later, in a maze-like souk, I reverse-haggled over the price of a leather purse, for my daughter—“The work is so beautiful!” I said. “Your price is too low!”—and ended up with both a free second purse and an invitation to spend Ramadan with the family of the shopkeeper (I think).

Golf in Morocco: The King and Billy Casper


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:


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:


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.


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:


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.


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.

morocco-lgflag (1)

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.


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.



Improve Your Golf Game by Using Luckier Coins

As I remove my clubs from the trunk of my car and put on my golf shoes (while being semi-careful not to scrape the bumper), I often agonize about which ball markers to carry that day. I have a huge collection, consisting mostly of foreign coins, and I realized recently that I won’t possibly live long enough to make full use of them. During a typical round, I carry between four and six markers in my pocket, and I try to spread the selection around—although I hate to abandon a lucky marker just to be egalitarian. Coaches face this dilemma. You’d like to play everyone on the bench, but, on the other hand, you’d like to win.

The image above shows some of my current favorites. On the far left is a Moroccan 10-dirham coin. The guy in the pointed hat is King Hassan II, who was a tyrant but also a golfaholic. (He wore golf gloves on both hands, and, before swinging, gave his cigarette to a servant, who held it with silver tongs.) Next is a Colombian 200-peso piece. It’s good because it has aiming lines and round things that look like golf holes and golf balls. Then an old Mexican peso—nice because the guy looks strange but also friendly and wise. (And lucky.) Then a Norwegian 5-kroner coin, which has a golf hole in it—get it? Last, on the right, is an Indian 2-rupee coin, which I sometimes use when I absolutely have to two-putt. (There are aiming lines on the other side.)

Here are some more:

The coin on the far left is an old favorite: an Irish 20-pence piece. If I pointed the nose of the horse at my ball when I marked it, the next putt would almost always go in or come very, very close. I stopped using it, though, when I realized how many unused (and potentially even luckier) coins I had in the trunk of my car. (I keep my markers in a yellow plastic tackle box.) Next to it is an Australian 20-cent piece. The image is of a duck-billed platypus swimming around, and the curvy lines—which represent the platypus’s curvy path through the water—seem to go well with putts that break a lot. Then another Australian coin, a dodecahedral one, which I like because the many tiny athletes depicted on it don’t include a golfer. Next is a Moroccan 1-dirham coin, which is good for one-putts (because of the 1). And last is a huge, magnetic, fake-pewter Golf Digest thing, which I used for a while out of company loyalty but then abandoned because what’s with the lion?

Not all my markers are coins or coin-like objects. I also have several thousand souvenir markers—the kind with the prong thing that you stick into the ground:

Of the markers in the picture above, my least favorite is the Starr Pass one, because I have no idea what Starr Pass is and don’t care enough even to Google it. I’ve never used it. My favorite may be the impossible-to-decipher one near the lower right-hand corner. The symbol on it looks a little like the presidential seal, so maybe it belonged to an important government official, up to and possibly including the commander-in-chief. Not depicted is my all-time favorite in this category: my marker from Morefar Golf Club, which I seem to have lost. The one time I played Morefar, there was only one other foursome on the course, and my foursome was stuck behind it. But the slowpoke was the Sultan of Brunei, and, apparently, you’re not allowed to play through him. My consolation was the marker, which I now can’t find. Oh, woe is me.