There was only one golf course in Marrakech 20 years ago. Spurred by successive golf-loving monarchs, course architects from around the world have descended upon the Red City. The result has been seven new courses in the last few years. The latest, after a long wait, is Assoufid.
The word was out in Morocco that Marrakech’s highly anticipated Assoufid Golf was ready to open three years ago. Then the effects of the financial crisis hit fully, and after a swap of management and some changes in plans, the new and improved Assoufid Golf Club finally opened at the end of 2014, immediately winning the IGTM prize for ‘Best New Course in Africa’.
The resort plans have gone from the niche market (it was originally billed as ‘the first truly private members’ course in Morocco’) to one of broader appeal. Out are the plans for 80 giant and exclusive villas targeting the very wealthy. The drawings now are much more down-to-earth and in line with expectations of expanded golf tourism to the area.
Two half-built structures, the foundations for intended mansions, may even be torn down in order to give space for the new, smaller and more affordable units that will be put up for sale in the coming months and years. They will still be quite stylish, by the looks of the rest of the project, which now includes a chic retro-decorated clubhouse and upscale restaurant. It has a highly appealing terrace with views toward the 18th green and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance.
Shopping for handicrafts is on the top of the to-do list for most Marrakech tourists.
Ups and downs
How does Assoufid differ from the other courses in Marrakech? One of the main differences is the site. The rest of Marrakech is pancake-flat, but the terrain surrounding Assoufid looks more like large, sweeping moguls. A riverbed, albeit mostly a dry one, splits the course in two. Apparently there is no site as undulated – or as suitable for golf – within 30 km. And all the variety, the 2000 planted trees, 1500 cacti, the red clay in the gorge, the rocky rough, and the majestic mountains, make the course extremely appealing to the eye.
Our visit began at the nearby tastefully decorated Beldi Country Club, where we were flung headfirst into Moroccan culture by visiting the spa. Never have I felt so much like a fish frying in a pan as when I lay on the hot tiles in the steam room. Before I had the chance to faint, I was roused by a nice lady, asked to stand, and she then invigorated me by pouring a couple of buckets of coolish water over my head. The proceeding soaping down and scrubbing of me (by her) successfully shrunk my ‘personal sphere’ and also removed years’ worth of skin layers.
Never has a ‘thé à la menthe’ tasted so good as in the spa resting room. This was especially relaxing when I heard the entertaining story of my (male) golf journalist colleagues from France and Germany. Despite being complete strangers at the beginning of the day, they had unwittingly ended up naked together in the same treatment room with a burly man (we had all forgotten swimwear and were given a cotton wrap that didn’t really seem fit-for-purpose, as it couldn’t withstand the process and soon ended up like just another wet rag on the floor).
The next day, it was perfect weather (one of the great strengths of Marrakech), and golf. This was at a time of year when northern Europeans like me don’t usually have the chance to tee it up. It just seems so exceptionally beautiful – the nature, sun and the fun of the game – while my neighbours up north are suffering in the dark.
Assoufid could really provide some of the most fun I’ve had on a golf course in Morocco. At par 72 and 6440 m from the tips and four sets of tees it’s a proper challenge without being daunting. The first holes ease you into the course, heading steadily toward the mountains. We had the pleasure of testing the course with architect Niall Cameron, the former European Tour professional from Scotland. It’s his first design, and you can tell he’s put his heart and soul into it.
“I started coming here about seven years ago,” he says. “I was enthralled by Morocco, it’s easy to love coming here.”
His design philosophy was to move as little earth as possible, working pretty much with the shape of the landscape he was given. He did supervise the planting of the numerous trees and cacti. With extremely nutrient-rich soil, all they needed to do was ‘add water’. In the course of the last five years, the growth has been amazing, as seen at the 13th tee where the fairway is bordered by a row of eucalyptus trees that already are several meters tall. My favorite holes on the front nine are the 4th and the 5th. Both are par fours with rolling fairways and the gorgeous mountain backdrop.
It seems that many people prefer the back nine to the front, but I’m undecided. Both are very good. The greens are subtle, but with run-offs that can give a good challenge to your chipping skills. The rough is usually quite open desert landscape, with packed sand and rocks. Bring your ‘rock iron’ (throw-away club) for those times you’re between a rock and a hard place.
A hole that must be many people’s favorite (mine included) is the short par three 17th (149m from the back). The green lies enticingly on the other side of the Shaaba riverbed, protected by bunkers at the back that will keep you honest.
The designer himself has the reachable 6th hole as a favorite. “The drive is intimidating,” he says. “You’re staring straight down the deep Shaaba. But in fact the fairway is one of the widest on the course.”
Usually in Morocco caddies are mandatory, which add another 100-200 dirhams to the round, depending on how happy you are with your caddy. But at Assoufid it’s up to you. Caddies in Morocco are not always 100 percent aware of the rules and etiquette, but they’re steadily learning and getting better. Morocco, after all, is one of the fastest growing golf destinations in easy reach of Europe. The target, it is said, is to have 40 golf courses throughout the country by 2020.
After the round you need look no further than the creations of French chef Damien Durand at La Colline clubhouse restaurant. Unless of course you’re so eager to get to the souk and the famous Djemaa el Fna square, watch some dancers, acrobats, musicians and snake tamers and soak up the night life in town. There are plenty of chic restaurants to choose from. No matter how many days you’ve scheduled to stay, there’s always more to see, experience, eat and drink in this exotic part of the world. You really should stay longer.