Morocco’s King Hassan II – a real golf enthusiast – commissioned American-based architect Robert Trent Jones to design Royal Golf Dar Es Salam in the late 1960s on a massive 1,000-acre site located a mere fifteen minutes to the south of Rabat, Morocco’s Atlantic coast capital.
The result was that three layouts were carved out of the Zaers forest, creating one of the top golf venues in all of Africa. The 18-hole Red is the toughest of the three tracks at Dar Es Salam, measuring a whopping 7,372-yards with a par of 73. The 18-hole Blue course is less demanding but testing nonetheless whilst the 9-hole Green circuit has been designed for a more relaxing game of golf.
“The specification for Royal Rabat exactly matched his style,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas in the New World Atlas of Golf. “It was to be a course fit for a king – Hassan II of Morocco, the most enthusiastic golfer among contemporary royals.
The tingle of anticipation, which every true golfer feels on approaching a course, begins at Rabat with a salute from the guard at the imposing mosaic gatehouse. The drive to the clubhouse makes its way through the stands of cork oak from which Jones carved the course, and the visitor’s first feeling of anticipation is tinged by a more guarded feeling, almost of trepidation; he will come to an intimate familiarity with the cork oak, with its drab, olive green leaves, gnarled branches and trunks that are stripped annually of their outer layer of bark, leaving them smooth, pink and bare. (They are blushing for their nakedness, as the Spanish saying has it.)”
RTJ certainly pushed out the boat when designing the Red course. Apart from the customary splashed bunkers, doglegged fairways and raised greens to be found on most of his layouts, he also shipped in some Roman column ruins – found between holes 11 and 12 – from the ancient city of Volubilis.
The signature hole on the property is undoubtedly the par three 9th where the tee shot has to carry a lily pond, complete with wading flamingos, to a shallow island green surrounded by flowers and trees – definitely one for the camera.
The Red course hosted the 11th (and so far last) Moroccan Open in 2001 when Ian Poulter claimed his second European tour victory with a 15 under par total of 277. Previously, the event had been held here three times – 1987 when Howard Clark came first, 1992 when David Gilford triumphed and 1996 when Peter Hedblom won.
The Hassan II Golf Trophy has been played for annually since the Red opened in 1971 and even though it was partly a pro-am event with celebrities involved, the list of winners is still quite impressive. In the 1970s, the names of Peter Townsend, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper were engraved on the trophy while, in more recent times, Sam Torrance, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els have all walked away with the main prize.
In 2010 the Trophée Hassan II made its debut on the European Tour (Morocco becoming the second African nation to host a European Tour event after Tunisia in 1982) when Welsh rookie Rhys Davies lifted the trophy, claiming his maiden European Tour title in the process. The following year, the competition moved to Golf du Palais Royal d’Agadir, where it remained for five years.
The future of the Trophée Hassan II competition has since been secured until at least 2018, with the first edition of the three-year extension played here on the Red course at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam in 2016. The Lalla Meryem Cup on the Ladies European Tour takes place on the Blue course at the same time so one can only imagine how busy this venue gets during that week.
A Red course renovation project led by long-time Coore & Crenshaw senior associate James Duncan (working in partnership with His Royal Highness Prince Moulay Rachid) began in 2016 with fairway bunker modifications, followed by fairway widening and then concluding with the rebuilding of all eighteen green complexes.
Duncan apparently discovered that the RTJ drawings for the Red course in the archive at Cornell University depicted a set of greens that were far larger than those that actually existed. As Jones never saw the greens after they were constructed in the late 1960s, the presumption was that they were not built to exact specification. They’ve now been enlarged quite considerably and are significantly more contoured than the old putting surfaces. Consequently the 2018 Trophée Hassan II event presented a rather unfamiliar test for the European Tour pros who'd played in previous tournaments.
There’s a very impressive golf facility located within the grounds of the Royal Dar Es Salam estate which will soon be augmented by a new Ritz Carlton hotel being built close to the 10th tee of the Red course, providing a rather upmarket dormy house for visiting golfers when it opens.
The Red course was renovated by Cabell Robinson prior to the re-hosting of the Trophee Hassan II in 2016 when new tees were installed on ten of the holes, putting surfaces were enlarged on four of the greensites and new bunkers were put in place on another four holes.
The lake between holes 11 and 12 was also reconstructed and a new water cascade feature has been built into the middle of this large water hazard – it’s more than a little ostentatious if truth be told, but it fits in rather well with the conspicuous Roman columns that sit above one side of the lake.
I’m not a fan of the par three 9th – the all-carry par three featured in books like The 500 world’s greatest golf holes and 1001 golf holes you must play before you die – because it’s way too contrived with its peninsula green jutting out into another lake.
The hole preceding it is a cracking par five (played as a par four for the pros during the European tour event) which doglegs downhill towards another lakeside green. Similarly, on the back nine, the par three 17th hole also plays directly downhill to one of the newly extended putting surfaces.
It’s a wonderfully routed course, with holes gently rising and falling across pleasantly undulating terrain, and it’s not until the par fours at the 15th and 16th that fairways run parallel to one another. Greens are relatively flat – often tilting from back to front – with subtle contours rather than broad swales, just as the pros like it.
There’s no doubting the quality of the course conditioning here, with the Moroccan authorities appearing to spare no expense when it comes to showcasing their national golfing treasure. If only the same maintenance budget was available to the other deserving Royal courses at Agadir, El Jadida and Tangier… Jim McCann.