RABAT, MOROCCO | Not long after the late King Hassan II of Morocco took up golf in the mid-1960s, he came to believe that the sport could benefit his country, which was very rich when it came to culture, heritage and hospitality, but relatively poor in terms of natural resources. The monarch felt that tourism would bring wealth to his Kingdom. One of the best ways to get travelers to put Morocco on their itineraries was golf. So, he decided to make his country a destination for the game.
The first step was to create the Royal Dar Es Salam Golf Club in Rabat. He hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. as his course architect. The site His Majesty selected was inside a national forest on the outskirts of town, property that featured gently undulating land and vast stands of cork oaks and groves of eucalyptus trees. Eventually, that site came to hold two 18-hole courses, the Red and Blue, and one nine-hole track, the Green. In time, Royal Dar Es Salam was regarded as the finest golf complex on the African continent, and its signature layout, the Red, started appearing on world top-100 lists.
But over the years, members of the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation – which is headed by Hassan II’s youngest son, avid golfer Prince Moulay Rachid – started to recognize that all three tracks needed an upgrade. The irrigation systems were dated. Mowing patterns had changed fairway widths and the sizes of the putting surfaces dramatically. Certain fairway bunkers were no longer in play due to increases in distance.
Jones had no intention of returning to Dar Es Salam. So, his design associates completed the courses.
Then there was the matter of the greens, which in most cases were small and lacking contours. Interestingly, those shortcomings were due not to flaws in the original course designs or the way Trent Jones executed them, but rather due to the fact that the architect was not around to finish the jobs. In fact, Jones had left Morocco in something of a hurry in the summer of 1971.
During a birthday celebration for King Hassan II, dissident members of the Moroccan military attempted a coup d’état. Jones and 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon were forced to lie on the palace floor at gunpoint. The coup was quickly squelched and no harm came to Trent Jones or His Majesty, but several people were killed in the uprising. Jones had no intention of returning to Dar Es Salam. So, his design associates completed the courses.
A couple of years ago, Prince Moulay Rachid initiated major revampings of each layout. That work was concluded this spring, and after touring and playing all three tracks in April, I can attest that they are better than ever.
The first course built, the Red, was designed for championship play. Work on that layout began in the fall of 1969, with a crew comprised of some 1,000 members of the Morocco military. The par-73 track opened for play in the spring of 1971, measuring more than 7,500 yards from the back tees, a monster length-wise in the days of persimmon woods and wound golf balls. Perhaps the Red’s most interesting feature was a set of marble columns from the ancient Roman city of Volubilis that rose between the 11th and 12th holes. Hassan II had come up with the idea to move them there after taking a series of long horseback rides on the property.
The Blue came online next. Its primary purpose was to serve as a member’s course. As for the Green, it was an entertaining nine-hole layout geared mostly toward beginners and those who did not have time to get in a full 18. In time, it became a favorite of His Majesty’s, who counted Harmon and Billy Casper as his swing doctors – and who initiated the hiring of Claude’s son Butch as the first head golf professional at Royal Dar Es Salam.
In the fall of 1971, the Red Course hosted the first Hassan II Trophy, with 1968 U.S. Open winner Orville Moody coming out on top. Then an exhibition, the tournament became part of the PGA European Tour schedule in 2009. In 1993, His Majesty founded the Lalla Meryem Cup, a women’s event named after his eldest child, Princess Lalla Meryem. From the beginning, he insisted it be staged the same week as the Trophy. Today that competition is a part of the Ladies European Tour calendar.
To take care of the renovations on the Red Course, the Federation hired James Duncan, a tall, slender man of Scottish and Danish ancestry and a longtime associate of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Like Trent Jones, Duncan had studied at Cornell University and was able to procure all of Jones’ original sketches from the university’s archives. That meant that he and his design team, which included a young, redheaded Scot named Benjamin Warren, had very accurate plans from which to work.
The project was completed in two phases. The first involved upgrading the fairway bunkers and re-shaping the fairways themselves, while keeping the routing more or less the same. The second entailed re-grassing the greens with Pencross Bent and giving them greater size and movement. Later, Duncan renovated each tee on the Red, to provide more angles and distance options, and added forward tees on some holes to make the course more accessible to mid-handicap golfers. He also installed a back tee on No. 17, transforming what had been a rather ho-hum par-3 to a testy par-4 that measured just 300 yards from the tips – and that was designed to tempt golfers to try and drive the green, which was backed by a man-made lake.
“We also made a few changes at the request of the European Tour,” Duncan says. “Filling a bunker here. Widening a fairway there. We cut down dozens of eucalyptus trees as well to improve air circulation and open up shots.”
To take on the revamping of the Blue, which is where the Lalla Meryem Cup is traditionally played, the Prince turned to architect Cabell Robinson, a longtime friend of the Jones family who first went to work for Trent Jones in his New Jersey office in 1967 and then opened a European office for him a few years later. Thoughtful, bespectacled and in possession of one of the great mustaches in golf, Robinson was not involved in the design or construction of the original courses at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam. But his longtime association with Trent Jones made him a strong choice for that job.
“I did not change the routing of the Blue at all,” Robinson says. “We did however, reverse the nines, and I re-did all of the tees and greens, replacing the grass in the process from a mixture of Bermuda and Kikuyu with bent. We made the course a little longer. But we also added some forward tees, keeping in mind the entire time that the Blue is primarily a member’s course, and one played by men and women alike.”
In addition, Robinson and his crew expanded the size of the greens, with the average one now about 6,000 square feet, and endowed them with more undulations.
Duncan and Warren were retained to work on the Green, and they clearly had a lot of fun with that nine-holer, which consists of three par-3s and six par-4s. “We kept all nine greens in their original locations and retained all but one of the original 15 bunkers,” Warren says. “And we gave each hole a name that represented a significant place or geographic feature of note in Morocco. We wanted the Green to be a place where people discovered this country through the design of the holes.”
And there are some good ones here, beginning with No. 2, Imlil Valley, a par-3 that features a punchbowl green. Or Laayoune, the par-4 eighth that is named after a desert region of Morocco because Duncan and Warren added nine bunkers on this hole to create their own version of the Sahara. The sleeper bunker on drivable par-4 third is a brilliant touch, and so is the short, par-3 seventh, dubbed the Gouffre de Friouato, which is the name of a deep cave system in the country’s Rif Mountains, and boasts a bunker in the middle of the green.
“Our thought was that getting your golf ball out of the donut bunker might be as difficult as finding one’s way out of the Friouato Caves,” Warren adds.
Royal Golf Dar Es Salam was good in the beginning. Thanks to these collective renovations, it is even better today.
Part of Dar Es Salam’s renovation goal was to tackle the small size and the lack of contour of the greens, which was achieved quite nicely on No. 9 Red. Photo: Storyline Productions
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