Italy remained grimly aloof a generation ago when golf tourism mushroomed into big business around the Mediterranean. While Spain and Portugal were making hay from their fairways and greens, most Italian golf clubs were being run as gated retreats for the benefit of the country’s social elite, and it is no exaggeration to say that visitors, let alone tourists, were largely discouraged. However, a more welcoming attitude is now in vogue. The number of courses throughout Italy has doubled over the past decade (to approaching 300), and the opening of several new hotels and residential communities at or near to many of these clubs has contributed to a sharp rise in visitors from northern Europe.
Just as importantly, the game is now forming a bond with Italy’s sports-mad public, a process initially sparked by the unheralded home triumph of Francesco Molinari in the 2006 Italian Open at the Arnold Palmer-designed Castello di Tolcinasco near Milan. Another turning-point in galvanizing public interest came late in 2009 when Francesco and his older brother Edoardo won the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in China. Never before had golf banished football from the front pages of Italy’s three daily sports newspapers!
The brothers teamed up again as Europe beat the United States in the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, and Francesco was once more to the fore in this year’s match at Medinah where his half against Tiger Woods in the bottom singles was the final act in the astonishing, come-from-behind victory.
But the strength in Italian golf is not confined to the Molinaris: their young compatriot Matteo Manassero won two European Tour titles before his 18th birthday while, on the distaff side, Giulia Sergas and Diana Luna are well placed to make the European team for next year’s Solheim Cup match against the Americans in Colorado. And with participation levels rising steeply across the country, it should not be long before further exciting talents are unearthed.
The Molinari brothers live in Turin, the city of their birth, and learned the game playing with their parents at Circolo Golf Torino, venue for the 2009 Italian Open.
Coincidentally, the last three Italian Opens have been played at another Turin club, Royal Park Golf (I Roveri), but the time will surely come soon when some of the country’s newer resort courses will stage the national championship. Earlier this year, I visited two 36-hole venues that clearly fall into this category.
The first of these, San Vigilio Chervò Golf Hotel Spa & Resort, just south of Lake Garda and about half an hour’s drive from the airports at Brescia (to the west) and Verona (to the east), opened in 2009 in the grounds of a 12th century abbey. Surrounded by vineyards and presided over by brothers Manfred and Peter Erlacher, who own the prestigious Chervò brand of golf clothing, this welcoming and picturesque resort is pleasingly spread out across gently rolling terrain in the heart of one of Italy’s most historic and desirable locations.
Designed by the German course architect Kurt Rossknecht, who has worked on several projects with Bernhard Langer over the past two decades, the golf consists of three loops of nine holes named after local villages – the ‘white’ (San Martino), ‘red’ (Benaco) and ‘yellow’ (Solferino) – which are varied on a dayto- day basis to produce three distinct 18- hole courses. Whenever a major event is staged at San Vigilio, though, a combination of the red and yellow loops, measuring in excess of 7,300 yards off the gold (championship) tees, tends to be used.
At present, all 27 holes are reasonably open, especially as most of the trees that line the fairways are far from fully-grown, but with several water hazards on the property, and an abundance of strategically positioned bunkers, there is very much a correct line to take off every tee. The ‘hit and hope’ approach certainly doesn’t work here.
For those seeking to improve their game, there’s a driving range and academy to the right of the 1st on the ‘white’ while the nine hole ‘blue’ (Pozzolengo) executive course is laid out around the 59-bedroom hotel and its attendant clusters of apartments.
The hotel, a five-minute walk from the clubhouse (and its award-winning restaurant), is wrapped around (and designed in the classical style of) the abbey, which is still consecrated though used mainly for weddings these days. In order not to clash with the abbey, architect Mara Paterlini constructed the hotel, along with its porches and terraces, from the same local stone, and filled the spaces between the buildings with ornamental gardens, fountains and softly-lit walkways.
Visually, the ‘olde worlde’ feel is enhanced by an apparent absence of vehicles other than golf carts, thanks to the hotel’s underground car parks. In addition to spa and wellness facilities, there’s also a conference centre that accommodates up to 250 people, two swimming pools and a sports centre where tennis, football and beach volleyball can be played.
Visitors will not need to venture far from the premises to immerse themselves in local history. Dominating the skyline is the San Martino della Battaglia tower, commemorating the Battle of Solferino in 1859 that eventually ended Austria’s control over Italy’s northern provinces and paved the way for unification. The scale of the casualties at Solferino also led directly to the founding of the Red Cross and the initial drafting of the Geneva Convention. But Solferino was not the only major battle to take place in the area. In 1482, Venice gained control of the region from Florence as a result of another bloody encounter, the Battle of San Martino.
As a postscript, San Vigilio, one of 67 golf clubs in Lombardy, is part of a locally-styled ‘golf circuit’ that is also worth exploring. It includes two other courses only a few miles away, near the town of Desenzano on the south-west shore of Lake Garda – Palazzo Arzaga Hotel Spa & Golf Resort and Lake Garda Golf & Country Club.
The other Italian gem I recently visited was the five-star Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa near the Baroque town of Ragusa in south-east Sicily. I flew from Gatwick with easyJet to the island’s second city, Catania, which is on the east coast at the foot of Mount Etna, still potentially volcanic but these days more of a grumbling grandparent than an explosive toddler.
Donnafugata opened in the summer of 2010 and less than a year later hosted the inaugural Sicilian Open on the European Tour. An hour’s drive south of Catania airport, it is located within a nature reserve near the beautiful beaches of Camarina, Punta Secca and Marina di Ragusa, and the UNESCO world heritage sites at Modica, Scicli and Noto.
At the heart of the resort are two 18-hole courses – the north (Parkland), designed by Gary Player, and the south (Links), laid out by the great South African’s Italian protégé Franco Piras – along with a 202-bedroom hotel, luxury spa and wellness centre, three restaurants (serving a bewildering variety of local wines and dishes), numerous swimming pools and a growing colony of holiday homes.
The Parkland, within the walls of a local castle and measuring just under 7,200 yards from the back tees, is a joy to play even though its awkwardly sloping, bentgrass greens are defended by sometimes cavernous bunkers. Spread out across an age-old olive and carob grove, the Bermuda-grass fairways seamlessly blend into the natural environment to create the effect of a golf course that is anything but man-made. The last three holes are protected by two lakes that make for an exciting trip back to the clubhouse, which overlooks the 9th and 18th greens in the style of an ancient amphitheatre.
There is also a historical element to the course – some of the holes are defined by typical Sicilian stone walls while the 18th runs alongside an archaeological site and the 6th is beside a Greek cemetery that dates back to the 6th century BC.
Malta can be seen from vantage points on both courses, but the view is much clearer from the Links where, contrastingly, the holes meander back and forth across two undulating valleys, each with its own lake. The sea is more of a backdrop, but the olive trees, ubiquitous on the Parkland, are surprisingly scarce on the ground here.
Indeed, the main arboreal interest on the Links is provided by several lines of palm trees and a few strategically-positioned pines that offer welcome shade on hot days – of which there are many in this part of the world – and shelter to the migrating birds with whom this stretch of land is a popular stopover. There is also an abundance of indigenous birds to be spotted in the wetlands between the 2nd and 3rd holes.
Despite their differing characteristics, the Links is a similar length to the Parkland and both courses are flanked by mounds of white sand. But with the ever-changing Sirocco and northeasterly winds, each game on either course is a new and exciting challenge.
Donnafugata, which also has a 70-tee practice range, golf academy, video teaching and short-game areas, has the ideal climate for golf – dry in winter, breezy in summer – and its courses are irrigated with recycled, purified water. Indeed, sustainability is at the core of the resort’s operations: the hotel reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by using solar energy to produce hot water, uses airconditioning to heat its kitchen water, and halves its electricity consumption with LED lighting.
Sicily has certainly warmed to golf in recent years and four other 18-hole layouts are also worth a visit. On the southwest coast, near the port of Sciacca and the ruins of an ancient temple at Agrigento, is Rocco Forte’s Verdura Golf & Spa Resort which opened a year before Donnafugata in 2009 and hosted this year’s Sicilian Open. The East and West courses at Verdura, designed by American architect Kyle Phillips meander from mountain foothills through olive, lemon and orange groves down to the Mediterranean. Il Picciolo, home course of the Etna Golf Resort & Spa just north of Catania, was laid out in 1991 through oaks, hazels and vineyards on the eastern slopes of the eponymous mountain. And a few miles east of the capital Palermo on the north coast, Il Picciolo’s designer Luigi Rota Caremoli followed up in 2003 with Le Madonie, sculpted around five lakes and framed by stunning views of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
San Vigilio and Donnafugata are but two of more than a dozen memorable golf retreats now on offer in Italy. Golf, of course, is only part of the equation – one must never forget the cultural and gastronomic forays that constantly flavour the overall package – but these days, thank goodness, for people who ‘have clubs, will travel’, the welcome is, at last, as warm as the weather.