Unexpected Golf Destination: Morocco

Morocco is a place where many would be startled to learn that golf even exists, much less flourishes. But this crossroads nation is full of pleasant surprises.

Golf Und Reisen
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Sometime in the mid-1960s, King Hassan II of Morocco, armed with an instructional manual by Tommy Armour—the “Silver Scot” star of the pre-1935 hickory-shaft era—decided to take up golf. The seeds of the game had been planted in Morocco a half century earlier, as French-colonial types had set up a rudimentary course in the far north Tangier International Zone. But the monarch of the newly independent nation—perhaps in keeping with his pro-Western, and specifically pro-American, worldview—wanted to make a splash in his capital city of Rabat, 155 miles south of Tangier, with the best modern golf development money could buy.

The resulting facility, Royal Golf Dar Es Salam (greens fees from $40; km. 9, Ave. Mohammed VI, Rabat; 212/5377-55864; royalgolfdaressalam.com), features 45 holes routed by the postwar period’s star architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr., through a dense forest of gnarled cork oaks, around glittering ponds, and even past a series of elegant white-marble columns hauled over from the nearby ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis. The former Masters champion Claude Harmon, whom the aging Armour had recommended to Hassan as a suitable teacher, crossed the pond from his longtime pro’s perch at Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, New York. His son, Claude Jr., also made the trip, and when Dar Es Salam was completed, he became its first head pro.

Of course, Claude Jr., better known by his nickname, Butch, would go on to become the most famous golf instructor in the world. “Hassan II, along with my dad, was the most influential person in my life,” says Butch. “He just had a way of doing things.” Harmon recalled being summoned to Morocco in summer 1972, after the king had just narrowly survived a second attempted coup d’état in as many years. “I shook his hand, bowed, and said, ‘Your Highness, I’m happy to see you.’ He said, ‘No, Claude—he always used my given name—it is I who is happy to see you!’”

Throughout the ’70s, tour stars such as Billy Casper and Lee Trevino would be flown over for matches, and every now and then the king would break 80. Morocco’s current ruler, Mohammed VI, prefers other sports, but Hassan’s youngest son, Prince Moulay Rachid, continues the family’s tradition on the links as an avid single-digit player and the prime mover in advancing the game in his homeland.

Rabat may not be the first place that comes to mind as a Moroccan travel destination today, but Dar Es Salam is where to play if one is in the city—it’s the place from which golf in modern Morocco stems. While it has a ’70s time-warp feel similar to that of, say, Montreal’s Olympic architecture, the club’s future is bright. After a five-year hiatus, the country’s main pro event, the European Tour’s Hassan II Trophy, will return in 2016. Both the courses and the clubhouse are likely to be spruced up in the next couple of years. A joint renovation plan submitted by the architecture firms of Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus is currently under review, though there are concerns regarding its expense and whether it may undermine the character of Trent Jones’s original work.

For those looking for more of a laid-back getaway outside of the cities, Mazagan Beach & Golf Resort (rooms from $255 per night; greens fees from $60; 24000 El Jadida; 212/5233-88000; mazaganbeachresort.com), about an hour’s drive from Casablanca and its gateway airport, might fit the bill. Mazagan is one of the fruits of Vision 2020, an ambitious government-driven effort to double the size of the country’s tourism industry by the end doesn’t get off to the most atmospheric start, as resort villas line the first five holes and detract from the golfer’s desired feeling of splendid isolation. Patience is rewarded, though, as the par-four sixth shoots straight out to the sea. Players must navigate a handful of intimidating bunkers placed on the beeline to the green, a broad tabletop set against the Atlantic with a perfect infinity edge.

In general, Player’s design rests softly on the terrain and has a rugged, linksy aspect. Fairways are often lined with a pretty, pink-flowered ice plant known as griffes des sorcières (witches’ nails). This is surefire lost-ball territory, though there’s plenty of width to play safely, even in the wind. As one might expect, the course’s most memorable moments occur closest to the beach, and both nines conclude with strong runs of holes by the shore. Most golfers should find plenty to enjoy at Mazagan.

Marrakech, the ancient Red City in the foothills of the Atlas range, 150 miles south of Casablanca, is a magnetic luxury-lifestyle destination. Alluring accommodations are thick on the ground. The iconic La Mamounia (rooms from $450; Ave. Bab Jdid, Marrakech; 212/5243-88600; mamounia.com) inside the walls of the medina is still a top hotel choice, but it’s far from the only one. For golfers—couples, not buddy groups—the Selman Marrakech (rooms from $360; km. 5, Rte. D’Amizmiz, Marrakech; 212/5244-59600; selman-marrakech.com) is well-situated in relation to many of Marrakech’s top courses. Or consider a place like Riad Kniza (rooms from $195; 34 Derb L’Hotel, Bab Doukala, Marrakech; 212/5243-76942; riadkniza.com). The longtime family home of Haj Mohamed Bouskri, an antiques dealer and the property’s restorer, Riad Kniza is a world of total tranquility, where mellow musicians play the oud and zither by a burbling fountain and perfect mint-tea settings await in well-cushioned salons.

Marrakech is the epicenter of the Moroccan golf boom, with about a dozen courses on which travelers may try their hand. Several are good, though the city is arguably still looking for its defining design. Assoufid Golf Club (greens fees about $85; Ave. Guemassa, km. 10, Marrakech; 212/5250-60770; assoufid.com) is one that has gotten a fair amount of attention since its October 2014 debut. Scotsman Niall Cameron’s layout trades heavily on startling views of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains—the curtain of peaks rises so abruptly that the juxtaposition calls to mind a Scottsdale, Arizona, desert layout smashed right against the foot of the Rockies.

Assoufid’s site has plenty of nice natural movement, but it’s far from an arduous walk, and about 2,000 palm and olive trees have been planted to enhance the oasis effect. A dry desert wash is used to good effect on a couple of holes, but on the whole the design is rather vanilla, with flattish greens and uninspired bunkering. That said, the views of the Atlas range are spectacular enough to overcome these shortcomings—just make sure to play it on a clear day.

Marrakech’s other golf facilities have their own strengths and weaknesses. Nicklaus cranked out some sound hole strategies at Samanah Country Club (greens fees from $40 for 9 holes, $75 for a full 18; km. 14, Rte. d’Amizmiz, Marrakech; 212/5244-83200; samanah.com), but there’s nothing there you wouldn’t find at one of Jack’s tracks at home, and the flat desert site offers fairly limited visual appeal. Al Maaden Golf Resort (greens fees $75; Sidi Youssef Ben Ali-BP 3282, Marrakech; 212/5244-04001; almaadengolf.com) features a course by Kyle Phillips, who is best known for his work at Kingsbarns, the modern classic near St Andrews. Al Maaden is a place with a madcap sense of humor. The grounds are dotted with oversized sculptures of jaunty, cartoonish golfers; water features are squared-off, reflecting-pool style; and the finishing hole features a quirky homage to Oakmont’s famed Church Pews bunker. Phillips built some neat greens here, too, but the place is undone by spotty conditioning, especially in the bunkers.

Finally, Cabell Robinson, the longtime right-hand man of Jones, created a resort layout at the Royal Palm Golf & Country Club (greens fees from $50; km. 12, Rte. d’Amizmiz, Marrakech; 212/5244-87800; domaineroyalpalm.com) that might be worth a look. It’s connected to a slick new property operated by Beachcomber Hotels, the high-end Mauritian mini-chain. The shaping of Royal Palm’s features is quite gentle and tasteful, but given how much earth Robinson had to move here (850,000 cubic meters), it’s no surprise that surface drainage can be an issue. Most of the course is in immaculate condition, but the layout also has areas that can get unusually messy after a rainstorm.

Another major Moroccan golf cluster can be found in Agadir, a city of some 600,000 on the Atlantic coast. Agadir is a modern metropolis—it was leveled by an earthquake in 1960—so it lacks the traditional architecture and stimulating atmosphere of, say, Marrakech. It’s an excellent beach destination, however, with some of the sweetest surf breaks in the country. It’s also home to arguably the best golf course in Africa—Golf du Palais Royal, which hosted the past five editions of the Hassan II Trophy. This bold 1986 design by Robinson is maintained at an Augusta National level and features several jaw-dropping holes in the Atlantic dunes and alongside the ochre palace walls, but, alas, it’s only open to guests of the Moroccan royal family.

Fortunately, Agadir also boasts the best public-access layout in Morocco. Tazegzout Golf Course (greens fees from $65; Route d’Essaouira, Agadir; 212/6718-18189; tazegzout.com) is a year-old design by Phillips. It’s part of a sun-splashed resort and real estate development with a confusingly similar name (Taghazout Bay) and an appealing, even newer Hyatt-brand hotel.

Set on 200-foot cliffs, no course in Morocco has bigger or better ocean views, but one nice thing about Tazegzout is that its inland-facing holes offer appealing vistas of their own, of rolling brown hills speckled with argan trees. The property is also scored by deep barrancas, which regularly come into play as challenging crossing hazards. The 10th, 14th, and 16th all feature heroic aerial approaches, to say nothing of the par-three 17th, a thrilling short iron from one high finger of land to another. Tazegzout’s edge-of-the-earth par-five finishing hole could be seen as a bit of a cliché, but only if one has grown bored with playing holes like the 18th at Pebble Beach.

During our visit last April, the experience at Tazegzout was rather like tasting a promising yet immature wine—the course was still settling into its environment. There was too much sand in the bunkers, and the native areas were filled with ball-gobbling vegetation that looked like the by-product of fairway sprinklers overshooting their target. It was better to miss the fairway by 20 yards than by 2, a problem that was compounded by the fact that many of Tazegzout’s landing areas are either convex (domed) or severely canted. The course, in other words, looks wide from the tee, but the margin of error with the driver is actually pretty small. These kinds of conditioning problems are common among young layouts and are easily resolved—in time, Tazegzout should become a course that holds a significant international profile.

Morocco is still emerging as a golf destination. More courses are in the works, including a Nicklaus design intended to draw summer travelers to the mile-high ski town of Ifrane. The country may eventually compete with the resort meccas of Costa Brava and Marbella for northern Europe’s golfing snowbirds. Right now, though, the game is simply a convenient vehicle for accessing the kingdom’s greatest strengths—the pulsing energy of the cities, the fantastic food, culture, and nightlife and, above all, the genuine hospitality of the Moroccan people.