Reborn and brutal: Royal Golf Dar Es Salam’s Red course

  • Royal Golf Dar Es Salam

    The 194-yard par-three ninth hole plays over water to an island green

  • Royal Golf Dar Es Salam

    The 387-yard par-four fifteenth hole at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam’s Red course

Adam Lawrence
By Adam Lawrence

Architect James Duncan’s renovation of Royal Golf Dar Es Salam’s Red course in Rabat, Morocco, has added significant contour to greens at an already famously tough course, as Adam Lawrence discovered at this year’s Trophée Hassan II.

It is fair to say that Robert Trent Jones Sr’s style of architecture has fallen pretty spectacularly out of fashion since his death in 2000 at the age of 93. Jones’s courses and those influenced by him – often created with tournament play in mind, with huge bunkers pinching into both sides of fairways at landing areas, and with copious water hazards – are still to be found, and, to be honest, are still being built. But they are no longer the state of the art.

Where previous designers had seen a golf course as a venue for two or more golfers to compete against each other, Jones saw the basis of the game as rather different – a contest between player and course. “Golf is a form of attack and counter attack,” he said. “It offers a golfer his personal challenge of combat. He attacks the course and par; the architect creates fair pitfalls to defend its easy conquest. The architect calls on his ingenuity to create a hole that will reward only achievement.”

We can argue all we like about whether this concept is a productive one. Many would say that it is precisely this kind of mindset that leads to the USGA’s concerns about ‘protecting par’, which in turn leads to some of the frankly over-the-top US Open setups we have seen in recent years. But one thing is for sure; anyone who comes out on top over a classic Jones course will know that he or she has been in a battle.

Jones’s fingerprints, and those of his long-time European-based associate, Cabell Robinson, are all over golf in Morocco. During the sixties and seventies, at the time that the late King Hassan II was encouraging – and even commissioning – the creation of golf courses across the country, Jones was the biggest game in town, and so, when the king wanted to build a flagship 36-hole complex in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, he was the obvious choice.

The property chosen to become Royal Golf Dar Es Salam (‘House of Peace’ in Arabic) must have filled Jones and Robinson with excitement. Sandy, lined with beautiful specimen trees, and with nice, rolling contour, but in no sense hilly, it is hard to conceive of a better inland site for a golf course. And what they built lived up to the property: the Red is a strong contender for the title of best course in the whole Jones oeuvre.

But, like every course, time had done its work on the Red. Bunkers had shrunk, trees had grown to the point where the course was claustrophobically narrow, and we will come back to the greens. Led by Prince Moulay Rachid, the second son of former King Hassan – and very much his father’s heir as the head man of golf in the country – and Karim Guessous of the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation, the authorities started looking for the right team to renovate the course. They made contact with Coore & Crenshaw, but were told it was unlikely that firm would be able to fit Morocco into their busy schedule. But long-time C&C associate James Duncan, at the time trying to forge his own design practice alongside his work with the mothership, came over to Rabat to view the property, hit it off with the Moroccan powers-that-be, and was commissioned to start a major renovation after the Trophée Hassan II of 2016.

In the first year, Duncan and his crew focused on tree removal and bunker reconstruction. The former opened up the corridors, by then far too narrow, improving playability, while the latter – which involved returning the bunkers to the enormous splashes of sand conceived by Jones and Robinson – certainly added substantially to the difficulty of the already fearsome (it measures around 7,600 yards from the very back tees) course. But it was always clear that this was a work in progress, and that nothing could really be assessed until the greens were reconstructed.

Work began on the greens immediately after the Trophée Hassan II of spring 2017. As anyone who has read Jim Hansen’s magnificent biography of Jones, A Difficult Par, will know, all of RTJ’s papers went, on his death, to the library of his alma mater, Cornell University, and it was in that archive at Cornell that Duncan found Jones’s original green plans for Dar Es Salam. What these plans showed was a set of greens that were dramatically bigger than what was in the ground. Now, we know that greens shrink over time; this happens on basically every course. But to shrink, and to lose shape, to this extent? That seems more unlikely. However, there is a solid alternative explanation. There was an attempted coup against King Hassan in July 1971, while the golf course was being built. Though the coup was suppressed, it certainly made foreign travel to the country less attractive for a period, and we now know that Jones never saw the greens of the Red course constructed. Were they ever built to his plans? It seems unlikely.

So the new greens are in a sense a link to the course’s origins. They are dramatically larger than the old ones, but they also contain a lot more contour. This degree of contour caused a certain amount of alarm at this year’s Trophée Hassan II, with European Tour players reacting with surprise.

Duncan and his team, including lead shaper Benjamin Warren, regular C&C operator Dave Axland and Arturo Escobar Montoya, have built greens with significantly more internal contour than most Tour venues, though they would not look unusual to anyone familiar with the output of Coore & Crenshaw and similar firms. The boldness begins at the opening hole, a 430-yard par four, where the high left side of the green flows into a lower right side via an extremely steep four-foot-high mound.

Typical of the reactions was this, from England’s Eddie Pepperell on Twitter. “I wonder if today will break the record for least total birdies made by the field in a day? Incredibly hard to make birdies out there,” he said. At the downhill, lake-backed 215-yard par-three seventeenth, where Duncan and team built a quite severe front to back sloping green with a big contour that throws the ball left, I watched a substantial number of players hit their tee shots to within ten or fifteen feet, but only one holed his putt for a two.

France’s Alex Levy eventually won the event with a score of 280, eight under par. Personally, I thought this was a perfect winning score: it proved that the course could be conquered, but scoring was significantly more difficult than a workaday Tour event – but Prince Moulay Rachid and his team have aspirations to be more than just workaday. James Duncan and crew have put the Red course firmly on the right track – it is an outstanding venue, clearly one of the very best visited by the European Tour. They should all be congratulated for their vision, boldness and dedication.

This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.