Nicklaus Design announced the opening of the 18-hole layout at Michlifen Golf and Country Club, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, in the late summer of 2018. Construction on the project had actually started four years earlier and it opened in a blaze of publicity with the “Coupe du Trone / King’s Trophy” tournament presented by the Moroccan Golf Federation.
Situated close to the small mountain town of Ifrane, known as “Little Switzerland” for its Alpine architecture, the course sits at an altitude of five and a half thousand feet above sea level within the stunning Middle Atlas Mountain Region of Morocco, between Fez and Meknes. The surrounding mountain landscape is draped with evergreen and cedar forests, providing a dramatic backdrop for the golf course.
Senior Nicklaus Design Associate Dirk Bouts told us: “I have been fortunate to work closely with Jack on numerous projects over my twenty-eight years with Nicklaus Design. This is a truly special course in a spectacular setting – a course that sets the standard in the region that people will enjoy for both its challenge and its beauty.”
With the combination of high elevation and a cooler climate, the agronomy team at Nicklaus Design chose cool-season grasses for the Michlifen course; creeping bentgrass for the tees and greens, Kentucky bluegrass for sand-capped fairways and rough, with some fescue and native grasses used in more peripheral areas.
“With a cold and wet climate during the winter, the sand capping of fairways and roughs was very important,” said Bouts. “These extra measures enable the course to tolerate extended play into the fall and allow for golf to start earlier in the spring.”
“The golf course has tremendous balance and variety to it,” Jack Nicklaus added. “You go from playing across open areas to playing around rock outcroppings to playing through wooded forests with mature trees, and then you end each nine of the course with spectacular, breath-taking views over the valleys.”
I had a look at Michlifen with shaper Russell Curtis last year – nearly all of the first 12 holes were growing in and the last 6 were still under construction – when the clubhouse was nothing other than a half-built concrete shell. Fast forward to last week and I returned to see how things had developed in the intervening months. I expected something special and I wasn’t in any way disappointed by what I found.
The clubhouse boasts a separate, self-contained VIP suite perched above the 9th and 18th double green and these putting surfaces and buildings lie along the edge of a ridge that looks out across a series of forested hills and valleys that stretch miles into the distance – for sure, it’s one of the most impressive 19th hole locations that I’ve ever come across, especially when sitting on the terrace as the sun sets.
It’s easy to see from the non-maintained areas next to the fairways that this wasn’t an easy site to build a golf course on as there are large clusters of small rocks everywhere. Right enough, you need to be wild with either your tee shot or approach to the green to land among these stones as the fairways are generously wide – though it’s good to have a constant reminder of what the terrain looked like before shaping and sand capping took place.
Most of the front nine is laid out on an open, though undulating, landscape and I liked how large tree copses had been preserved to frame four of the first eight holes, affording the course an instant feeling of maturity. Greens came in all shapes and sizes – some raised, others benched into little ridges; all of them defended by a selection of beautifully flashed-faced bunkers.
I’m not a big fan of leaving the introduction of the first par three on a course until well into the round but that’s what happens here at Michlifen. In fairness, it’s worth waiting for because the 138-metre 7th is a terrific short hole, requiring a tee shot across a small gully to a back-to-front sloping green located in the most northerly corner of the property.
If that par three can be classified as good then the next one at the 9th is nothing short of sensational, played slightly downhill from a precarious tee position along the edge of an escarpment to a green that’s somehow tethered to the top of the ridge in front of the clubhouse – it’s an absolutely stunning hole to conclude the outward half.
There’s a slight sense of déjà vu on the first three holes of the back nine as they’re laid out next to holes 1 – 8 and you could be forgiven if you felt that you were replaying holes you’d already played. That perceived familiarity ends at the 13th though, as the routing swings south and into a wooded part of the estate, where a lovely lake also comes into play off the tee at the 12th and by the green at the 15th.
Emerging from the forest at the 17th, golfers find themselves back on the edge of the precipice that featured on the 9th hole, only this time the steep fall off into the valley runs along the left side of the closing two holes, a short par three and an uphill par four where anything left is gone forever whilst wayward shots to the right are lost in thick vegetation.
It’s a rather daunting end to a round at Michlifen and one that ensures you must stay focused all the way to the final green. If ever a course was configured to end both the outward and inward half on a real high then it’s this one. You’ll be hard pushed to find a more memorable set of closing holes anywhere – and the others that precede them are really decent too!