Moroccan golf reaches new heights in the Middle Atlas mountains at Ifrane
We were delighted to accept a recent invitation to play the new IMG-managed course at Michlifen Golf & Country Club within Ifrane National Park, located just an hour’s drive south of Fez international airport in the Middle Atlas mountain region.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the 18-hole layout is the Golden Bear’s first Signature golf course in North Africa and it’s been built to a championship standard that makes it more than capable of hosting both national and international tournaments.
We’d actually been to the site during course construction in April of last year, when we were attending the Trophée Hassan II European Tour event at Royal Dar Es Salam Golf Club in Rabat, so it was great to return eighteen months later to see the finished article.
The Michlifen course is situated to the southwest of Ifrane, some ten kilometres from the resort’s 5-star chalet hotel, where it was built for ONCF, the national railway company, with architect Dirk Bouts and shaper Russell Curtis heading the Nicklaus design team on the ground.
Because the landscape is so rocky in these parts, fairways were capped with imported soil and playing corridors for the last six holes had to be carved through the forest that lies to the south side of the property. By no stretch of the imagination could this course be described as an easy build.
Both the front and back nines end in spectacular style with fairways laid out along an escarpment overlooking the market town of Azrou in the distance and the clubhouse terrace perched above this ridge behind the 9th and 18th greens has to be one of the best sundown spots in world golf.
Click the link to read more about Michlifen Golf & Country Club
It’s a long way to travel to Morocco to visit just one place so we built a little road trip into our excursion, enabling us to have a look at a few other golfing facilities in the north of the country, starting with another IMG operation at the Atalayoun Golf Resort in Nador, on the Mediterranean coast.
The recently opened Marchica Golf Academy offers an unrivalled array of practice and learning facilities, including a state-of-the-art Performance Centre, full-scale driving range with proper target green complexes, short game centre and a lovely little par-3 course which runs alongside the lagoon.
Led by a small team of Professionals, the Academy not only offers itself as the ultimate golf-learning destination, it will focus on integrating and developing golf within the community as well as identifying and nurturing golfing talent in the country.
An hour’s drive east, very close to the Algerian border, lies the popular coastal resort of Saïdia and the decade-old Lacs course at Golf de Saïdia is a Francisco Segales design, routed around a number of sparkling lakes, with both nines finishing in front of the clubhouse. It’s a pleasant resort course to be enjoyed without raising the pulse too much.
Nearby, the finishing touches were still being made to Golf de Saïdia’s brand new Teelal course and a very modern two-storey clubhouse when we visited. This 18-hole links-style layout is only the second design from Nicolas Joakimides and he’s set out the course on a sandy 180-acre site next to the beach, shaping much of the course himself.
It looks a really fun track – crammed with fairway humps and hollows, sandy waste areas and punchbowl greens – but because it was still growing in we didn’t get a chance to play what appears to be a great new addition to the golf scene in Morocco. Hopefully, we’ll get the opportunity to return next year to properly appraise it.
We then headed six hundred kilometres west, from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean and the harbour town of Larache, where Lixus Beach Resort lies to the north of the port. We’d been alerted to this place six months ago by a golf news item which mentioned its 18-hole championship course was open for play – it was closed when we tried to have a look at it in April last year.
Unfortunately, it looks like the course still isn’t actually operating at the moment, which is a real pity as it looks like a very well-constructed layout – having been built to championship standards by Enrique Saenger in 2010 – but the current maintenance regime on the property leaves a lot to be desired.
Further south, between Rabat and Mohammedia, we looked in at a Robert von Haage 9-hole design at Bouznika Bay, where the late architect’s partner Rick Baril had overseen the project in the late 1990s. He told us: “We hired a Canadian shaper we had worked with previously and found a great French project manager. A team was built around these two key people, and the project was completed.”
“I think we were able to design some interesting holes at Bouznika Bay. Today, I think we could have been even more aggressive with the sandy waste areas – which mainly border one side of many golf holes. But I would be more aggressive with the sandy waste areas today – and allow them to penetrate the fairways in some strategic points.”
Our final visit was to another 9-hole course, this time the old layout at Royal Anfa in Casablanca, which is set within an oval horse racing circuit in the north west quarter of the city, less than two kilometres from the corniche that runs along the Atlantic shoreline.
Secrétaire Général Mohamed Mekour had extended an invitation to join him for lunch at the clubhouse and it was fascinating to hear him talk about the management of a club that has more than four thousand members, which represents around two thirds of all registered golfers in Morocco.
As it was a Friday, when weekly race meetings take place, the course was closed but we were given special permission to inspect the layout by buggy with the course manager. Extending to 2,710 metres from the back markers, this 9-hole circuit plays to a par of 35, ending with a par three hole which requires a carry across a small lake to the home green.
Royal Anfa is a nicely laid out track that has served the membership since the 1930s (or 1940s, depending on who you listen to) and the club definitely functions at the heart of Moroccan golf, as witnessed by the sight of several leading officials from the Moroccan Golf Federation enjoying lunch at the next table, following an earlier meeting they’d attended in the clubhouse.
All too soon, it was time to depart the Western Kingdom and return once again to the UK. We’ve now been to just about every golf facility in the country, apart from one that opened in the south of the country last year, along with Ron Fream’s 9-hole layout at Settat University which we hadn’t enough time to visit this time around.
There are also a few very private tracks laid out within the Royal palaces in Rabat, Fes, Marrakech and Skhirat that we’d like to visit in the future if it was possible to obtain the necessary permission. We’ve played within the palace walls at both Agadir and Meknes so it would be a rather unique golfing achievement to complete the Royal rota but that’s perhaps another story for another day…
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