While the film of the same name was actually shot entirely in Hollywood, Casablanca will always be associated with that 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Sure enough, movie buffs visiting Morocco’s most cosmopolitan city today can visit a replica Rick’s Café, complete with Veuve Clicquot cocktails and Sam’s grand piano churning out As Time Goes By.
Meanwhile, golfers might like to cue up Casablanca’s opening sequence which features an old map of Morocco clearly marking Mazagan as the next point along the coast to the south-west of the city.
For while that ancient Portuguese port with its colourful souks and famous citadel has long since been renamed El Jadida, the old exotic name has been revived for a stunning new golf resort that basks a few miles away in splendid isolation on the region’s unspoilt coastline. The Mazagan Beach Resort, an hour’s drive from Casablanca, with its superb setting, palatial hotel and exceptional Gary Player-designed course, is rapidly emerging as one the most acclaimed golf developments of the decade.
And despite the African address, it is barely 20 minutes flying time beyond southern Spain. Gazing onto the course from your ocean view room it seems obvious that this stretch of Morocco was always destined to be exploited for golf. The wild beauty of the landscape with its rugged dunes bordering endless beaches pounding to the hypnotic soundtrack of the Atlantic, make it a no brainer.
But, nature aside, Mazagan still needed some serious design, financing, construction and management to realise its potential and deliver such a compelling all-round experience. Starting with the King of Morocco who first gave his blessing, an A-list of developers, operators and assorted movers and shakers behind Mazagan goes some way to explaining the vision and success of the finished project.
Nine-time major champion, Gary Player, with a portfolio of over 300 courses and an obvious personal interest in promoting his home continent was clear choice as course architect.
Meanwhile, his fellow South African, legendary hotel mogul Sol Kerzener, is the force behind the ambitious 500-room resort.
The Player/Kerzener connection of course dates back to Sun City, and while Mazagan is not conceived as such a hedonistic hotspot, it nevertheless has its moments with North Africa’s largest casino, lavish restaurants and a nightclub as a foil for its authentic local charm.
Still, to get golfers beyond continental Europe’s boundaries you need to tempt them with something special in terms of the golf. And the setting, design and condition of the 18-hole course and adjoining academy have, unequivocally, done just that.
For much of the round the routing takes you out and back within yards of the shore with sometimes overwhelming sea views. Imagine the awesome abandon of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, the gripping variety of Kingsbarns and the authentic African flavour of Player’s own Fish River Sun on South Africa’s Wild Coast, and you have some idea of the feast in store.
“I knew we were in for a treat when I walked the site before construction,” said Player when Gi asked him for his first impressions. “The natural dunes and vegetation were just made for a links-style golf course with a spectacular series of ocean-front holes. It seemed that many of the holes were already there, and the wind off the Atlantic reminds one of the conditions of many of the Scottish links.”
Mazagan may not be a purist’s conventional links, with the course built directly on the sandy fertile remains of on old eucalyptus forest. But Player’s adventurous fairway countouring, green/bunker complexes spanning a rich mix of plateaus and gathering dells, and a full complement of seemingly natural ridges and swales, has certainly ensured one of the great seaside golf experiences.
Player again (Sam): “I was so taken with the site that I walked right out onto the beach and took a “skinny dip” in the Atlantic!” And we’re quite taken with his layout.
Among the many signature holes is the picture perfect par-three 15th (main photo), played directly towards the sea with a raised plateau green perched on a ridge of dunes framed by a backdrop of ‘white horses’. Imagine the 11th on the Old Course transplanted to Morocco (complete with a treacherously deep Hill bunker fronting the green) but with the Atlantic ocean instead of the Eden estuary as the backdrop, and you’re almost there.
‘Money shots’ aside, the architect’s skill here has been maintaining the aesthetic appeal while balancing the technical challenge for all standards of golfer. For while Mazagan is Morocco’s longest course (a mighty 6,885- metre, par 72, from the tips), four sets of carefully located tees ensure both the photogenic drama and a variety of different lines to the landing areas.
Being essentially a resort course, the fairways are generous – indeed sometimes vast. But, rather cleverly, this is not always evident from the tee. Often the driving lines look tight, focusing the mind. And yet when you arrive at the fairway, you may find your ball from an apparently off-line drive basking in a welcome extra corridor of landing area.
This is just as well as Mazagan’s rough is as treacherous as it is beautiful: a combination of tangled seagrasses and wild thorn bushes all linked by vast stretches of Morocco’s version of the iceplant so familiar with golfers in Arizona.
It may have a pretty purple flower but the leaves of this low-lying succulent form a network of small, banana shaped ‘fingers’ that snag almost any recovery. Just keep your ball on the playing surfaces.
And what surfaces they are. As great as the setting is, Mazagan’s developers realise that the deal-breaker for discerning international golfers these days is course condition, with year-round, ‘tour spec’ standards now de riguer for any self-respecting premium destination.
Enter Troon Golf, the management company that has become a byword for course quality, while they now also consult in all areas of resort operations from booking systems to food and beverage.
Troon’s rapidly expanding portfolio currently numbers 380 courses worldwide, including Turnberry and The Grove whose playing surfaces are acknowledged among the industry cognoscenti as consistently among the finest in the UK. Mazagan’s salt-resistant Platinum paspalum grasses are easily their equal, delivering flawless fairways and almost billiard-table quality greens that run superbly true at a constant 11 on the stimpmetre.
True, a sober assessment of Mazagan would point out that the first few holes – while still technically captivating – snake through a section of the resort’s on-site villa project: 67 luxury units of authentic Moroccan design, each with swimming pools and sun-drenched terraces.
It’s only from around the 4th that the routing begins to venture into the wilder landscape which, notably, extends to the rugged, elevated terrain on the landward holes cleverly ensuring that the drama and views are not confined to the prime beachfront stretch.
As you relax after your round in the spectacular clubhouse, with its elegant entrance arches framing the sea and open-air restaurant from which you can idly enjoy the setting sun sliding into the sea, you’ll find it hard to fault the golf experience.
Sure, the thick red-hued bunker sand makes for some tough escapes – and even tougher raking. But this is the indigenous natural terrain which defines the setting and any imported sand would have look contrived while obviously clashing with the beach.
Talking of atmosphere, a gentle haze often hangs over Mazagan like a warm filter in a classic Brian Morgan golf course photo. Usually this burns off in the Moroccan sunshine – which, incidentally, figures here for 300 days a year. A couple of days a month, however, this can turn into a spooky sea mist known in Arabic as dabab, a swirling pea soup that can make for an eerie few holes before visibility returns. But, again, this is all part of the Mazagan experience in a resort that leaves no stone unturned. In the five-minute walk back to the hotel you’ll pass the spa – already voted No. 1 in the country (to go with the various golf course awards for eco-friendly construction and maintenance practices).
Along with all the latest workout machines (which include Kinesis, as used by leading golf biomechanists) the highlight here is the secluded double treatment room for honeymoon couples with its own extra large whirlpool bath and private terrace overlooking the ocean.
Mazagan have certainly made the most of their prime asset – starting with the Beach Resort suffix. The beach club itself is almost worth missing a day’s golf for, to try out the various surfboards, hobbie cats, quad bikes and beach buggies (of which there are fleets rather than a few).
Barbeques, volleyball and horse-riding further ensure the 7km stretch of sand is a focal point of the resort, while the Kids Club with its own waterfall pool, giant movie screen and games room sporting the latest Apple Macs almost deserves its own separate review.
Meanwhile, at dusk, the hotel comes into its own. Like a vast Moroccan palace, the hotel is built in the North African riad style of open corridors around inner courtyards of various sizes with, in the middle, a huge swimming pool surrounded by an oasis of palm trees and sun terraces.
At a rumoured resort cost north of $370 million, no expense has been spared with the scale of the rooms, the architecture and the décor. Marble floors, delicate mosaics and elaborate wooden carvings fight for your attention in what is a feast for the senses.
Talking of feasts, nine restaurants cater for superb all-you-can-eat buffets through to purist foodie extravangazas served in a variety of colour-themed, as well as food-themed, halls. Tajines, seafood pastilles, Mediterranean vegetables and couscous are the specialities, while local lamb mechoui, mince kefta and sushi illustrate the heady fusion of African, middle eastern and Asian cooking.
After dinner, the casino comes to life with several tables offering roulette and blackjack as well as banks of slots and a quaint mechanical horse racing game called Royal Ascot.
A raised sports bar at one end features several wall-mounted TV screens, while beyond is the nightclub complete with a swish VIP area. Talking of which, the list of celebrity vistors to Mazagan over its first two years include Tony Blair and the King of Saudi Arabia (who has even had the two Royal penthouses tweaked to his personal specifications).
Back in the casino, I had a bizarre Casablanca moment when, on my first roulette session, 22 Black came up twice in the first three spins. Movie buffs will remember that the same number mysteriously wins consecutively in the scene where Bogart’s character, American club owner Rick Blaine, ‘engineers’ a small fortune for one desperate gambler.
Incidentally, while the movie’s main plot concerned the task of secretly sourcing exit visas for refugees fleeing war-torn Europe, nowadays a small customs card is the only paperwork you need to get home.
El Jadida itself translates as ‘the new one’ and, as Rick Blaine would say to golfers looking for an exotic new destination, Mazagan could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.