Rabat, Morocco l The late King Hassan II was a golf fanatic. Not only did the Moroccan monarch tee it up as often as royal duties allowed, but he also carried a single-digit handicap for much of his adult life – thanks in no small part to his engaging first Claude Harmon and later Billy Casper as his personal teaching pros. His Majesty also believed that golf could serve as a catalyst for developing tourism in his predominantly Islamic realm. So he instigated the construction of more than a dozen courses during his reign, including a handful within the walls of some of his palaces.
He built some pretty tracks, among them a pair of 18-holers at the Golf Club D’Amelkis outside Marrakesh that were laid out in the shadows of the snowy Atlas Mountains. Another noteworthy track is the Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salaam Golf Club outside the capital city of Rabat, which Robert Trent Jones Sr. routed through a lush cork forest. It is the site of an annual European PGA Tour event, the Hassan II Trophy, which was won this past winter by Welshman Rhys Davies.
King Hassan II died in 1999, but the nation’s passion for golf remains strong under the patronage of his successor – and eldest son – King Mohammed VI. Several acclaimed layouts have recently come on line, among them a Jack Nicklaus course just west of Marrakesh called Samaneh and a linksy Gary Player design on the Atlantic Ocean coast south of Rabat, dubbed Mazagan.
All told, 22 courses are currently open in Morocco, with nearly that many expected to be completed within the next several years. To be sure, some of that development is fueled by the enthusiasm for the game of the current King, and his brother, Crown Prince Moulay Rachid, both of whom also recognize that golfers tend to spend more money than your average tourists. But it is also the result of simple rises in demand from travelers looking for different places to play the game. They are attracted to Morocco’s vibrant culture, which is an olio of Arab, Berber, Moorish, Jewish and French influences, and enchanted by a friendly populace that likes to remind American visitors that in 1786, Morocco became only the second country, after France, to recognize the newly formed United States of America. Tourists are also taken by scenic and varied terrain that includes towering mountains, vast deserts and 3,500 miles of beaches as well as very temperate weather. And they fancy the Kingdom’s close proximity to Europe and the United States. London is only a three-hour flight away, while New York’s JFK airport is reachable in roughly six.
Perhaps the simplest way to break down golf in the Kingdom is to divide the courses into four distinct categories that speak as much to the different ethos and geographies of those tracks as it does to their various locales. One encompasses those layouts in the Mediterranean region to the north, such as Tangier Royal Golf Club, built in 1914 and the oldest in the country. Another comprises what might be called the “cultural” segment, and includes the courses in and around the Imperial Cities of Morocco – and the places where the sense of the country’s traditions and history is strongest. Like Fez, the Kingdom’s spiritual and creative center, with 185 mosques, more than 200,000 resident artists and a nifty nine-hole track. And Meknes, built in scrubby hills along vineyards and olive groves and once known as the Versailles of Morocco. Moulay Ismail, the Alaouite sultan who ensured an even longer-lasting legacy by fathering more than 700 sons, constructed many of its monuments and palaces in the late 17th century. The beguiling nine-hole golf course now operating there came hundreds of years later.
A third designation belongs to those courses in and around the Atlas Mountains, where the hoary crags of that majestic range come into view throughout most rounds, and the climate is dry and warm. Marrakesh is the leading destination in this group, with five distinct golf clubs offering a total of 135 holes within easy drives of this 11th century walled city. And the final cluster is comprised of the so-called “sea courses” near the Atlantic Ocean resort of Agadir, where morning rounds are followed by afternoons lazing on sumptuous beaches.
Even after six trips to Morocco, most recently last month, I still have a hard time picking a favorite track. The best in the country is the Red Course at the Royal Dar Es Salaam. It boasts a challenging mix of long and short holes that compel players to work the ball as it also enchants them with a garden-like setting and a potpourri of on-course aromas from coppices of orange and mimosa trees as well as rose and hibiscus bushes. Then, there are the 2,000-year-old columns from the ancient city of Volubilis that rise between the 11th and 12th holes, and the flocks of ibises, a bird sacred to Islamic theology, that frequently fly overhead. And forget about ever finding a bad lie there; the greenskeeping staff numbers 400 people.
But I also enjoy the course at Royal Meknes. It is not nearly as good from a design or conditioning standpoint. But what makes it well worth a visit is its location within the 300-year-old walls of one of the late King’s palaces. It is hard not to gawk at the ramparts that rise all around that layout, or at the Moorish gate by the fourth tee through which His Majesty used to walk onto the course from his residence. I also like the views of the minarets looming above the medina (old town) in the background, and the occasional sight of a member of the grounds staff stopping his work to unfurl a small rug on the ground and begin praying in the direction of Mecca. Players may unwind with a post-round beer in the small restaurant there and then tour the nearby ruins of the once prosperous Roman outpost of Volubilis, which thrived before the time of Christ.
Different as all the courses in Morocco may be, they all speak to the pleasure of playing the game in a decidedly unique and invigorating culture. It’s what makes traveling there with your clubs so rewarding.
Clearly, His Majesty had the right idea.
(For more information, visit the Moroccan National Tourist Office at www.visitmorocco.com.)