Hafid Sayah, ATH General Coordinato. Credits Mustapha Benabdelkarim.

We interviewed the General Coordinator of the Association du Trophée Hassan II (ATH) Hafid Sayah during the Lalla Aicha Tour School Pre Qualifier in Rabat. ATH is the current promoter of two Ladies European Tour events in Morocco, the Lalla Aicha Tour School and the Lalla Meryem Cup.

 Q: LET Qualifying School has been staged in various countries such as Portugal, France and Spain… when and how did the idea to play the Qualifying School in Morocco start?

The idea to organize the Qualifying School in Morocco came from a program made by ATH together with the “Office National Marocain de Tourisme” to promote Morocco as a golf destination. Their first goal was to promote the country through international golf events. If these events have an international impact and visibility, then even better. But there is also a second goal. When we organize this event here in Morocco, we are able to promote our national young golfers much better and support them to get to a certain level of golf. This way we can help them to get to play at some time on the Ladies European Tour. And we have had already achieved this with our current national top player Maha Haddioui. Playing in Morocco last year, at her home, made it much easier for her and there are some other young national players, still amateurs, who are not ready to play in this event as they are too young.  

Maha has become a well-known player in Morocco now, known by not only girls, but also boys. She is a role model for them. When they see that Maha has been able to get into the LET, they think “Why not me?” We believe that in one or two years, we will have five or six players at minimum with a high enough level to play in the Qualifying School.

We put ourselves forward as one of the candidates to host the Qualifying School. The Ladies European Tour had at that time some different candidates such Spain, Portugal and Italy. Finally, Morocco was selected because, in my opinion, our project showed more positive things than other bids to organize this type of event at this time of the year. Our weather of course, has been a key. The weather in Europe is not that good, not even in Spain or Portugal at the end of the year so Morocco was a good alternative and Marrakech, in particular, as we have lot of sun there and weather conditions are normally perfect. So, everyone agreed that it was the best place to organize the Q-School.

Q: When did you start to organize the first edition Lalla Aicha Tour School?

Well, we are used to organizing many golf events. ATH organizes at the present time 14 events and the most important are Thropheé Hassan II and Lalla Meryem Cup. And now, together with these, we have added this event.  

We started to work on this project in December 2011, identifying hotels and golf courses, making the selection of most appropriate facilities, looking for different flight options, transfers, food and beverage possibilities, etc. Then, once our bid was confirmed, we needed to contact the golf courses and hotels to book them and the Ladies European Tour sent the agronomist to check the conditions of the courses. Last year, from beginning of July, the entries were finally open for the first edition.

Q: How did you select the golf courses? Which are the requisites?

There are currently 30 golf courses in Morocco and 10 additional under construction that will be ready in 2015. The key is to have two 18-hole golf courses. Ideally it is to have both of them one close to each other, as it is much easier. A golf course with 36 holes, as we have here at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam is perfect. Then, to have hotels not far away from the golf course.

Q: How was the first edition of Lalla Aicha Tour School?

It was a complete success not only because of the weather, which it was very good, but also because we had a lot of players coming and we had Maha, our local player, who performed very well and made it into the top 30. On top of this, we witnessed a great level of golf. We had the best rookie players of this season like Ariya Jutanugarn (Lalla Meryem Cup champion) and Charley Hull, both were there and they are now amongst the top players in Europe.

Q: The first edition of the Lalla Aicha Final Qualifying School was played in Marrakech at Amelkis and Al Maaden. Tell us some differences that we will find at this second edition.

The main difference is that we play this year in Samanah Golf course instead of Amelkis. The course at Amelkis was very well located, close to Al Maaden, but had some problems this year because it rained a lot, got flood and did not recover well. So, as we did not want to take the risk, we finally decided to change course, and they accepted. Samanah is a Jack Nicklaus design, facing the mountains and with extraordinary greens. It is a very good golf course, perfect to host these events.

Q: Kyle Phillips, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Jack Nicklaus… We find some of the top world golf course designers here in Morocco. What can you tell me about golf courses in Morocco?

Yes, the quality of the golf courses that we have here in Morocco is very high. In general, this was the politics and philosophy of promoters here. They have understood that the golf players are very demanding clients and they like to play on high quality golf courses. The promoters believe that if they want the golf tourists to come back and repeat the experience, they would need to make them remember these golf courses. Those who have realized that this is actually really happening decided to build the golf courses with the top world golf course designers, so the majority of golf tourists decide to come back to Morocco to play golf.

Q: When did you start to see Morocco as a “Golf destination”?

Well, we just needed to see and to question ourselves what our neighbours were doing, that is what Spain and Portugal are doing and we see now the Costa del Sol, Costa del Golf, in Andalucia (Spain) and Algarve, in Portugal. The statistics show that the golf tourist spends four times more than a regular tourist.

Q: What´s the role of the Royal Family in this organization?

The president of the ATH is his Royal Highness Moulay Rachid. But there are also historical reasons. The first event that was open and seen outside Morocco was the Trophée Hassan II, in 1973. At the time, King Hassan II thought that if the country would like to be seen internationally, it needed great events. And at the beginning it was more focused in the US than Europe. We had lot of players from the US coming to first Marrakech and then Rabat. But then, Europe became more interested. Since then, the Royal Family has been there promoting golf and many members of the family play golf, some of them very well.

Q: How many people are there in total within your organization?

We are at the moment a team of 20 people in total who are working all year. But when we approach the events, we increase the number of people and, for example, we have 400 people during Trophee Hassan II and the Lalla Meryem Cup, which happen at the same time. The majority of us play golf and we know each other from a long time ago, so we are like a big family. Lalla Soumia is the general director and she is also a golf professional.

Q: How difficult is it to find sponsors for golf here in Morocco?

It is very complicated. The sponsors always want something in return and we work very hard during the year to offer them what they need and fulfil their expectations. There are different types of sponsors; some of them are not interested in the international promotion and visibility, they are just local or national. On the other hand, the biggest sponsors that we currently have are international, i.e. international banks and other companies related to tourism, like the Tourist Office “Office National Marocain de Tourisme” and “Royal Air Maroc”, the official Airline company but we have also others like “OCP”, which is a global leader in phosphates extraction and transformation.

Q: How do you see the future of golf in Morocco?  

To be honest, I think that we are going in the right direction now. The Tropheé Hassan II has gained a lot of notoriety, and Lalla Meryem Cup, too. Regarding the tourism, the figures confirm this, too, even though with the economic crisis.