Royal Party in Morocco

Pro-Am golf events at most PGA, LPGA and Nationwide golf tournaments generally consist of introductory handshakes on the first tee between a pro and his or her amateur playing partners, and a handshake and tip of the cap after the last putt is dropped on the 18th hole.

Pro-Ams are designed to give the average amateur golfer the opportunity to meet professional players, see tremendous golf shots, and play golf while contributing to a local worthwhile charity. Pro-Am events are ways local host committees raise money to help cover tournament expenses. Most are quite expensive one-day events.

The Hassan II Golf Trophy golf tournament, held yearly on the Royal Dar Es-Salam’s Red Course in Rabat, Morocco’s European-styled capital, also includes a Pro-AM event. However, it is much more than a one-day event. It has been called “The Ultimate Pro-Am” as participants take part in ten days of activities in conjunction with the tournament.

Begun 36 years ago as a result of a friendship developed between golf legend Billy Casper and Hassan II, the now deceased King of Morocco, the Hassan II Golf Trophy is a marvelous event for both professional and amateur players from all over the world. This past year 24 professionals from 17 countries competed as did amateurs from the US, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Winners of previous tournaments read like a Who’s Who of Golf and this past year’s winner was no exception as South Africa’s Ernie Els joined the list of top professionals who have won the tournament title. Els’s scored a two stroke victory over Sweden’s Johan Edfors with a 17 under par score on Royal Dar Es-Salam’s lengthy 7000 yard Red Course. Els joins an international elite group of golfers including Casper, Lee Trevino, Payne Stewart and David Toms of the US; Vijay Singh of Fiji; Colin Montgomerie of Scotland; Peter Townsend and Roger Chapman of England; and 2007 winner, Padraig Harrington of Ireland, as a champion of this international tournament.

Laurie Davies of England took top honors in the women’s Lalla Meryem Cup, held in conjunction with the  Hassan II Golf Trophy, by beating an all-star group of 13 women professionals from seven different countries. Davies won with a seven under score on Royal Dar Es-Salam’s 6200-yard Blue Course. She bested Tania Elosegui of Spain by one stroke to take home her 70th international golfing victory.

The 2008 “Ultimate Pro-Am” was more than just golf. Way more. It was ten days full of of wonderfully organized golf and activities. An incredible opportunity to speak with professional and amateur golfers from all over the world and an opportunity to meet Moroccans, learn about their intriguing culture, taste palate pleasing food, and sightsee and shop in the centuries-old souks in the medinas of  Marrakech and Rabat.

It was an opportunity to take a 4-wheel off-road tour into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains; to drive through Berber villages filled with smiling children. It was lunches and dinners with golf legend Billy Casper, his wife Shirley, and their son Bob, co-host of the weekly golf show Real Golf Radio. It was an opportunity to trade golf stories with other members of our group who had flown in from Dubai, New York and California to play in the men’s and women’s tournaments.

While in Marrakech, it was relishing the exquisite lunch served at the Kasbah Agafay, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. It was the dining at Ksar Char-Bagh, a private palace inspired by 14th century Moorish architecture and member of Relais & Chateaux It was dinner at Restaurant Tanjia where belly dancers entertained while we dined on traditional Moroccan delicacies.

In Rabat, our group was privileged to spend an evening at the home of Mohamed El Gaharvi, one of  Rabat’s leading rug merchants. What an evening. We conversed with Mohamed and his family in their lovely home filled with exquisite Moroccan and Chinese rugs, gorgeous lamps, clocks and family photos. We enjoyed home cooked chicken pastilla, a large elegantly shaped pie of delicately blended layers of  flaky philo pastry, eggs, almond paste, and ground chicken, topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. We ate mouth watering bites of lamb shoulder covered with tender slices of squash, turnips, carrots, and pumpkin served on a bed of couscous topped with raisins and onions and sprinkled with cinnamon. It was a wonderful experience.

Our hotels in Morocco were distinctly different as were the cities of Marrakech and Rabat. The Hotel Sofitel in Marrakech had the feeling of old Morocco with light pastel colored orange walls, tiled floors, carved wooden doors and bellmen dressed in traditional Moroccan attire. The Hilton in Rabat reflected more of the European flavor of Morocco’s capital. The staffs at both hotels
were highly trained, extremely courteous and in most cases totally able to decipher the needs of our American group who spoke little French and no Arabic.

The pairings party at which the 24 male professionals and 13 lady professionals were presented, and the gala black-tie dinner for nearly 700 guests which was presided over by His Royal Highness Prince Moulay Rachid, were held in the main banquet room at the Hilton. At the pairings party, Billy Casper personally greeted each professional golfer. The respect shown him was overwhelming, as well it should be. Casper’s golf record includes 80 wins on five continents including 51 wins on the PGA Tour, and nine on the then Senior Tour. He won the US Open twice and donned the famed Green Jacket as Masters Champion once at Augusta National. He also played on nine Ryder Cup teams, was Captain once, and holds the record for most wins by an American in Ryder Cup competition.

Casper’s warm personal relationship with the Royal family, members of the Royal Society of Golf of  Morocco, and the people of Morocco, was quite evident during our 10-day sojourn. At a private reception for the American amateurs and the Casper family held at the residence of US Ambassador Thomas Riley, Ambassador Riley praised Casper, his relationship with the Royal family, his 65 trips to Morocco since first meeting with KingHassan II in 1968, and his 40-year tenure as “Goodwill Ambassador to Morocco”.
By being with him daily and watching him interact with Moroccan friends new and old, it was obvious to us how much Casper has done to promote positive relations over the years between the US and Morocco. Watching the reverence for Casper among the professional golfers as he greeted them at the pairing party, on the course, and in the player’s dining area was truly inspiring.

During the tournament we were able to meet and speak with many of the competing professionals, both men and women. The openness of the tournament allowed me to converse with tournament winners Ernie Els and Laura Davies, four time European Tour winner Paul McGinley of Ireland, Marcel Siem, who teamed with Bernard Langer to win the World Cup for Germany in 2006, Faycal Serghini, Morocco’s number one pro, Johan Edfors, this year’s 2nd place winner from Sweden, women’s runner-up Tania Elosequi of Spain and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc of France, team captain of the winning team in the ladies Friendship Cup for female guests and sponsors of the tournaments.

During our stay in Rabat, I played Royal Dar Es-Salam’s championship Blue Course, the nine-hole Green Course, and walked with a number of pros on the Red Course. All three courses were tree-lined parkland styled courses. All were well bunkered with heavy red clay sand, much different than the light white sand we are accustomed to in the US. The layout and terrain of the three courses reminded me a great deal of my home course, Shadowridge Country Club in Vista, California.

My favorite holes on the Red Course were the 9th hole, a difficult par 3 which required a 200-yard shot to the green over a duck filled lake, and the 11th hole, a par 4 with Roman columns sitting elegantly in the rough to the left of the fairway. Rains during the three weeks prior to the tournament soften the greens and allowed the pros to go for the pin on most occasions although wicked pin placements provided adequate challenge and demanded exacting shots.

Morocco’s geography and climate are similar to my home state of California. It has lovely sand beaches on its West Coast, the spectacular Atlas Mountains in the middle of the country, the Sahara desert to the East and flat agricultural land for raising fruits and vegetables throughout the country. Morocco, a country that should be on everyone’s “To Visit List”, was the first country to recognize Washington’s new government in the late 1700’ and has been a friend of the US ever since.

A great way to visit Morocco is to participate as a golfer or non-golfer in “The Ultimate Pro-Am”. For more information about Morocco, visit www.Morocco.com. For information about the Hassan II Golf Trophy or the Lalle Meryem Cup, email Joan Short at wwg@earthlink.net or Chuck@TheTravelingGuy.com.

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