Next generation of Moroccan golfers breaks stereotypes

Above: Young golfers competing in Morocco Srixon Junior Tour championships practice on the putting green at Mogador Golf Course. By 2020, half of all licensed golfers are expected to be juniors. (Photo by Katie Koontz)

by Katie Koontz

ESSAOUIRA, Morocco – One dusty dirt road separates the small village of Diabat from Mogador Golf Course. Diabat is made up of a string of homes where everyone knows each other. Kids in white uniforms run down the hill to the schoolhouse, goats wander between buildings, and dogs chase the occasional car down the unpaved road. Just across the street, the lush golf course stretches into the distance until it meets the ocean.

Mogador Golf Course is the site of the Srixon Junior Tour Championships, at which the best junior golfers from across the country compete for the title of Champion of Morocco. Many of the country’s best juniors come from very modest backgrounds. One of these top players is 16-year-old Ilyas Roudani, who lives just across the street in the village of Diabat and is part of a free golf school called Birdies of Mogador.

“When I was 10 years old, I did not understand what these tourists did next to our homes,” Roudani said, referring to the Mogador Golf Course. “Now I am a part of these people, and golf gives the same value to everyone whether you are poor or rich.”

Golf in Morocco is commonly thought of as a sport of the rich: an inaccessible and expensive pursuit. In 2017, Morocco was named Africa’s Best Golf Destination by World Golf Awards. Despite the development of golf tourism, there is still a lack of elite Moroccan professional players. Now, Morocco is actively diversifying junior golf to widen the pool of players.

“The most important thing for us is to produce or to have more players, that the federation become more interesting to people, to sponsors,” said Jalil Bennis, 46, general director of the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation. “The more players you have, the more sponsors are coming, and it comes from juniors.”

Bennis’ joining of the Federation in 2016 has been the driving force behind the push for juniors. The federation launched the Hello Golf junior road show, which introduced kids across the country to the sport. Experienced junior golfers from seven cities were chosen as “ambassadors” to lead their classmates in a day of golf at their local course.

Omar Benbrahim of Royal Golf Dar Es Salam was one of the ambassadors for his school, l’Ecole Al Atlas. After Hello Golf, he said, the perception among his classmates began to change.

“They understood that golf is difficult — it’s not easy,” said Benbrahim. “Afterwards they began to ask. They began to want to know the rules.”

According to the federation, the junior-to-junior format both empowers students and challenges the stereotypes associated with golf. It plans to continue this program annually.

A sport of the rich?

Mogador Golf Academy Director Benoit Willemart watches junior golfers
Benoit Willemart, director of Mogador Golf Academy, watches his junior golfers warm up on the range. Many of the young golfers live just across the road in the village of Diabat. (Photo by Katie Koontz)

Mohamed Bendiab, 55, of Royal Golf Agadir, is a part of a new team of regional coaches organized by the federation. The four coaches detect players with the potential to be competitive golfers, and some of these players receive training in Rabat.

“This policy is to mix the rich and the poor,” says Bendiab. “So we have right now in my academy, in my school, most of them — like 98 percent — are poor people. You know they don’t have enough money to play golf.”

The Royal Golf Agadir Academy is free for its young players, giving them the opportunity to play golf and compete both nationally and internationally. Founded by Marwann Chamsseddine in 2005, the academy has produced some of Morocco’s top champions despite their less privileged backgrounds.

Ayoub Lguirati, 23, one of Morocco’s best amateur golfers, is a product of the Royal Golf Agadir Academy. Growing up by the golf course, he was invited by the president of Royal Golf Agadir, Colonel M’hamed Kamili, to join the academy free of charge.

“I have never forgotten where I come from,” Lguirati said.

Lguirati believes that the idea of golf in Morocco as a sport of the rich is changing.

“It’s much more accessible now,” says Lguirati. “What it does is that there are more young people who want to play golf — more players who will become good players who will represent Morocco later.”

Many of these young players compete at the Srixon Junior Tour. Founded by the director of Mogador Golf Academy, Benoit Willemart, 48, and funded by the Lacoste Foundation, the Birdies of Mogador program has challenged the stereotype of golf by proving that champions can come from all backgrounds. Many of the Birdies, selected by merit, live across the dusty road in the village of Diabat.

Mogador Golf Course
Mogador Golf Course hosts the Srixon Junior Championships, where young golfers come from around the country to compete on an elite level. (Photo by Katie Koontz)

The Mouani family has three children who play golf at Mogador. The terrace of their home in the village allows for an expansive view of the golf course. Inside, Younes, Mehdi and Aicha proudly show off their glossy medals with colorful ribbons which represent tournaments both in and outside of Morocco, places they might not have visited if not for their involvement in golf. On the wall hangs a photo of a group of children at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam in Rabat with Prince Moulay Rachid, an avid golfer himself.

Back on the course, Roudani shows off a trick. He keeps the ball in the air by bouncing it off of the club face. With a bright smile, his eyes stay focused intently on the ball.

“I start to have hope,” he says. “I want to become a champion of golf.”

After two days of competition for the Srixon Junior Tour Championships, the players gather on the club house lawn for the awards. The champions for each age group represent diverse backgrounds and clubs; reinforcing the idea that golf in Morocco is not only for the rich.