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.
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 '60s and early '70s, 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 '70s, 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 42nd 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.