2006: Bridging the divide

So there’s a Jew, a Catholic and a pair of Muslims playing golf. No joke. Not even the part about the caddie abandoning his bag at the eighth tee and rolling out a mat facing east so he could pray to Mecca. But if there were a punchline it would have to be that this oddball foursome was teeing it up at Dar Es-Salaam Golf Course, which translates to the House of Peace.

There may never be peace in the Middle East, but we can all get along on the golf course. At least we did at the Friendship Cup, part of the King Hassan II Trophy held in Rabat, Morocco.

Located in Northern Africa, a mere 10 miles from Spain, separated by the Straits of Gibraltar, Morocco is the gateway to Europe. The country has a strong European influence, but Morocco also is the entry point to the Arab world, a country where more than 98 percent of the population is Muslim.

In an effort to bridge the cultural divide between Islam and the Western world, Morocco’s King Hassan II envisioned a golf tournament as a way to transcend cultural prejudices.

“This was his majesty’s dream,” says the King’s good friend, Hall of Famer Billy Casper, “to bring Europe, Africa and America together.”

King Hassan II, who died in 1999, was a golf nut. He built himself several courses over the years, including a nine-holer within the burnt-orange walls of his palace in Rabat, with floodlights so he could play at night during the monthlong Islamic holiday of Ramadan. Once Casper and the King teed off there at 11:30 p.m. Casper birded five of the first seven holes, then turned to the King and remarked, “I think I’ve been playing at the wrong time of day.”

The Rouge Course, the prized layout of the 45-hole complex, is a verdant oasis carved out of a 1,000-acre cork forest. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. design has as an added attraction the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, which were relocated to between the 11th and 12th fairways.

Off the course I experienced the culture at the medina, the ancient trading places within the casbah. Haggling is expected, and has turned into an art form in this part of the world. “He wants to buy a donkey for the price of a mule!” one carpet merchant, dressed in a traditional djellaba and wearing a fez, barked at my low-ball offer. At night, we were initiated into many of the long-standing customs.

A troupe of Berber tribesmen played their darbukas. Bellydancers got me to cut some Moroccan rug. I drank steaming hot mint tea, ate the most delicious tangerines and tasted a variety of tagines, a Moroccan stew in which the meat falls off the bone.

His majesty staged the first Trophy in 1971 and since then has lured some of the game’s biggest names to the event – Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price and Casper are former champs – by handing out appearance fees almost as big as the purse.

Casper first came in 1969 at the recommendation of his friend Claude Harmon, who taught the King. Casper came six more times that year. He’s known the current King since his majesty was 6. Casper even renewed his wedding vows with his wife Shirley in a full Moroccan ceremony.

“I’m half-Moroccan,” he jokes.

Asked why he still comes every year, he answers plainly: “Out of friendship to the King.”

It’s the type of bond that the King always envisioned for his tournament. Before 9/11, the amateur field was 90 percent American and 10 percent European, but those numbers have since flip-flopped because of security fears. When the tournament was held in late October 2001, 180 Americans canceled. Only one American still showed but Casper still made the trip, with his family in tow. “I feel safer here than anywhere in the United States,” he says.

That might have as much to do with the King’s security forces, which whisk competitors to their tee times with a police escort. Casper fondly tells a story about entering the medina in 2001 and a shop owner saying to his family, “Welcome Americans. Your tragedy is our tragedy.”

Says Casper: “Morocco is what a Muslim country can be.”

Ali Bouasilla, 52, is the head pro at Royal Golf Dar Es-Salaam. He was born a Muslim, nursed by a Jewish woman and married a Christian. “I am Morocco,” he muses.

“To me golf is not a sport, it is a religion,” he says. “If we had a Jesus, then it was Payne Stewart.”

I might quibble with that, but there was the time Bouasilla claimed Stewart turned water into wine and spent the night “transcending cultural differences” at the King’s party until the wee hours of the morning.

“He told me I couldn’t go to bed,” Bouasilla remembers with a chuckle, “I had to be his alarm for his tee time.”

Stewart played in the King’s event three times, winning twice and losing in a playoff.

“Go anywhere in Morocco and they know Payne Stewart,” Bouasilla says.

So when Stewart died, he was mourned in Morocco every bit as much as in the U.S. In the market, alongside a memorial for the late King, hung a picture of Stewart. It’s one of many shrines to be found. Bouasilla pays his own tribute. He organizes an annual tournament called Two Friends.

Should I return to play in Bouasilla’s event, I know who my partner will be. Chakib Bennani, a middle-aged Moroccan with an engaging smile and a fade I would die for, was one of my opponents in the Friendship Cup, a two-man event for media, sponsors and celebrities.

Both of our partners – mine an affable Italian and his a fellow Moroccan – were nongolfers and so the round turned into a match-play contest with a Ryder Cup feel. Early on, Bennani warned me that I had teed up in front of the marker. My face reddened and I cursed him under my breath. But then I realized that despite our different religious beliefs, we believed in honoring the same rules of the game.

Bennani and I were evenly matched and soon developed a mutual respect for each other’s abilities.

I settled for a tie after missing a tricky 8-foot birdie putt at the last. At that night’s gala, my new Moroccan friend offered to take me to his home course in Casablanca so we could settle the score. Only a downpour spoiled the resumption of our match.

But it might be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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