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Toast of the Casbah
Alan Shipnuck
November 18, 1996
A merry band went all the way to Morocco to find a tournament fit for a king
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November 18, 1996

Toast Of The Casbah

A merry band went all the way to Morocco to find a tournament fit for a king

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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."

"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 friendship.

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 12-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 diehard 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 played with."

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."

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