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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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Golf in Morocco

Written and photographed by Nik Wheeler

With cries of protest, the coots and geese waddled off the tee. I placed my ball and peered across the lake at the red flag 165 meters (180 yards) away. A trio of pink flamingos lifted their heads from the shallow water and watched my seven-iron tee shot arc into the blue sky. With a thud, the ball landed on the edge of the tiny spit of land that doubled as the green, rolled back off the apron and into the water. The notorious ninth hole of Rabat's Dar Es Salaam Golf Club had claimed another victim.

Up until this par-three showcase hole, I had been playing rather well on one of the world's top 100 golf courses. Having parred the 357-meter (390-yard) par-four first hole and birdied the par-three second, I had suddenly found myself two up against Bendiab Abdullah, the course pro and Morocco's number-one-ranked golfer - allowing for the facts that he was giving me one stroke a hole and playing off the professional tees. But by the time we had reached the long, par-five fifth with its dog-leg right, my natural slice had returned, Bendiab had chipped out of a sand trap to within eight centimeters (three inches) of the pin, and we were all square. The final blow to my chances of managing one of golf's all-time upsets came with my water shot on the ninth.

As we sank our final putts on the undulating green of the par-five, 492-meter (539-yard) 18th and retired to the sleek white clubhouse for glasses of sweet mint tea, I had lost ten holes in a row. My only excuse was that I had been mesmerized by the natural beauties of this very dramatic golf course.

The Dar Es Salaam is a happy blend of golfer's paradise and botanist's dream. Carved out of the cork-oak forest of Zaers at the end of embassy-studded John F. Kennedy Boulevard, just a few miles from downtown Rabat, Le Royal Golf, as it is popularly called, opened in 1971. The 400-hectare (1,000-acre) sports complex has 45 holes of golf, two tennis courts, a swimming pool and an adjacent equestrian center where horses may be rented.

But the main attraction is the 6,682-meter (7,307-yard) par-73 championship Red Course, designed by the celebrated Robert Trent Jones. Glorious long fairways weave through the forest of cork trees, whose brown-banded trunks blend with the ochre sand of the bunkers that ring most greens. Beyond the eighth green lies a natural lake that serves as a dangerous water hazard for several holes and as a playground for the area's birdlife. The ninth green is a small island fringed on two sides by clumps of yellow-stalked bamboo and reached by a Japanese-style bridge. Another scenic hole is the 442-meter (483-yard) par-5 tenth, where you have to drive across more water to reach the fairway. At the spot where you should be hitting a wedge shot for the green, four Corinthian columns rise from the rough - reminders of Morocco's historic past. More water runs along the entire left side of the double dog-leg left 12th hole - one of the toughest of the course.

Lee Trevino competed here in 1977 and pronounced the Dar Es Salaam to be one of the finest settings he had ever played. And official recognition came 10 years later when it was made the first stop on the European PGA Tour. The 1987 Moroccan Open Championship attracted such big names as Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and the eventual winner, Howard Clark. My golfing partner Bendiab, who had quit his job as driver for the local Coca-Cola company to turn pro in 1980 and win the tournament in 1985, just missed making the 1987 cut after 36 holes.

Since 1987 Rabat has not featured on the European tour, and international golf in Morocco seems to have come to a standstill. The president of the national golfing federation recently resigned and has not been replaced. One victim of this official inertia has been the Red Course, which is apparently no longer in the tip-top condition it was two years ago - not that the average visitor, in Morocco on a golfing holiday, will be able to tell the difference.

Where else in the world can you walk into a private club - let alone a royal one - and tell the starter what time you would like to play? I turned up unannounced at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning and 20 minutes later was on the first tee, gazing down the avenue of eucalyptus trees lining the fairway. The only signs of life around me were a flock of egrets pecking for insects in the damp grass.

And the price for this luxury is right. In the United States the green fee can run over $100 at a course clogged with foursomes. In Japan, the median price of membership in a golf club has reached $205,000. Even on Spain's Costa del Sol and Portugal's Algarve Coast, once considered Europe's golfing paradises, a round will cost nearly $60, and you may have to book your tee time weeks in advance.

Here, except on Sunday, when many of the club's 1,200 members gather for thebuffet lunch and a little exercise, the course is usually wide open and the green fee is only $25. You'll pay another six dollars for a caddy to carry your clubs, and he will probably give you the same helpful advice that Seve Ballesteros gets from his brother, at no extra charge. If you should show up without clubs, the caddy-master will rent you a set for seven dollars.

There is a well-equipped pro shop that sells balls, clubs, clothing and souvenirs stamped with the club's emblem - a full-maned lion chomping on a golf ball. Other facilities include a putting green and a driving range, where courageous young men in crash helmets dart nimbly around to pick up the balls.

To play the Red Course you must have a handicap of 18. No restrictions apply to the par-72 Blue Course, another Robert Trent Jones masterpiece, which is 6,200 meters (6,780 yards) long, with narrower fairways and an unplayable rough. Even the nine-hole Green Course is a tough challenge.

According to club manager Colonel Larbi Benaissa, the course is playable throughout the year. "The best time to come," he recommends, "is between October and March. But as we are only six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the ocean, as the crow flies, the temperature rarely gets above 28 or 30 degrees (83-86°F)."

To make life even easier for the golfing tourist, both of Rabat's major hotels, the Hyatt and the Tour Hassan, provide a free shuttle service to and from the club. The Hyatt is closer but more expensive; the Tour Hassan has the advantage of being more central - within walking distance of the medina and other main tourist attractions - and has one of the best Moroccan restaurants in town.

And should you - improbably - grow bored with Rabat and yearn for a change of scene, there are seven other golf courses scattered around the kingdom. Morocco's equivalent of St. Andrews is the Royal Golf Country Club in Tangiers. It was here, in1904, that King Moulay Abdelaziz donated land to the local diplomatic corps for their sports. Ten years later, an enterprising British diplomat organized the construction of a nine-hole golf course, Morocco's first. In the early 1960's, the course was expanded to a par-72, over 6,000 meters (6,560 yards) in length, that became known for its narrow fairways and deep rough.

In the southern oasis of Marrakech, the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas mountains form a spectacular backdrop to LeGolf, which is set among apricot, palm and olive trees. Another interesting course is the nine-holes at Anfa in Casablanca, laid out in the Hippodrome, inside the rails of the race track. In the royal city of Meknes, the small course is surrounded by the ancient walls of the royal palace. The only city that may eventually threaten Rabat's undisputed title as golfing capital of the Maghreb is the southern city of Agadir. One Robert Trent Jones course is waiting for its official opening by King Hassan, and another 18-hole course is under construction there.

Golf's best-kept secrets in the Middle East are the elegant Moroccan courses - further attractions to knowledgeable visitors to the country.

Nik Wheeler is a freelance photographer based in Los Angeles, a frequent contributor to Aramco World and an enthusiastic golfer.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1989 images.