SCIACCA, SICILY | Knowing I have visited Italy a few dozen times over the years, a friend recently asked what I liked most about that European land.
“The food and wine,” I blurted, even though that seemed such a pedestrian way to describe the pleasures of, say, a luscious Brunello and a plate of cavatelli al pesto so fragrant the aromas ignite the salivary glands the way a blasting cap sets off explosives.
I also mentioned museums and ruins, of course, like the Uffizi in Florence and the Forum in Rome. The Alps and the lakes, too, especially around Como and Garda, where palm trees rise in the shadows of snowy peaks. Then, there are the people. Dio mio, il populi. As friendly and loving of life as any on this planet. In addition, their language is so delightfully lyrical, and spoken as much with the hands and eyes as the mouth.
“Did I mention the food and wine?” I asked only slightly tongue in cheek, and my friend laughed. Then he followed up with another question, an obvious one for anyone who knows me.
“What about the golf?”
Prior to this past summer, I could not have answered that accurately because I had never teed it up in Italy. But I visited a couple of golf resorts there last July – Verdura in Sicily and Palazzo Arzaga near Garda in the north. And that allowed me to provide a somewhat informed response.
The golf is good, I said. Molto buono. Not as extraordinary or wide-ranging as the food and wine, or as impressive and deep as the antiquities. But fun and enjoyable just the same, and one more way to absorb the pleasure and sense of being in Italy.
To be sure, Italy is not a leading golf destination, and never will be. But I was not looking for another Scotland. Rather, I simply wanted to play some good golf, and to do so in a land full of character and fun.
I also wanted to check out a place whose countrymen were suddenly making noise in the professional golf world, and who were generating lots of excitement in a nation where only one in 700 people tee it up (as compared to the 1 in 15 in Scotland) – and where soccer is still very much king. Two of those were the fratelli Molinari – Edoardo and Francesco – Ryder Cup players who are now ranked among the top 20 in the world. Another was 17-year-old Matteo Mannasero, who had won the 2009 British Amateur and this year won a European Tour event during his first season as a pro.
I started my tour in Sicily. Raw, rugged Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean with its endless orange and olive groves, its sun-baked villages and its history of being overrun by invaders of every ilk, be they Greeks or Romans, Vandals or Goths, Arabs or Normans, French or Spaniards. Sicily has toughened as a result; its people very hardy. But they are a people who have never lost their hospitality. No matter how many visitors may have conquered their island, Sicilians welcome visitors with open arms.
They certainly made me welcome at Verdura, the newly opened golf resort developed by luxury hotelier Sir Rocco Forte. Set on 570 acres just outside the historic fishing village of Sciacca and hard by the Mediterranean, it boasts a pair of superb 18-hole courses designed by Kyle Phillips, who built fabulous Kingsbarns outside St. Andrews a decade ago. Phillips has created a similarly linksy layout here that features plenty of pot bunkers and favors those who can play the ground game. I relished the different angles the two Verdura courses compelled me to play and fancied the vast size of the greens, the ample width of the fairways, the varied lengths of the holes themselves and the fact that I used every club in my bag.
Water came into view throughout the rounds, providing enticing backdrops to several approach shots. Coupled with the seemingly ever-present wind, it also evoked a real sense of the British Isles. Until, that is, I realized the water up north does not have so many different shades of blue and green. But this was the Mediterranean, not the Firth of Forth. And I appreciated even more deeply that I was in Sicily when I gazed up at the rocky hills towering over Verdura and the terraced vineyards rising like earthen stairs. It was hard not to think “Godfather: Part II” when I did that and the opening funeral procession. Michael walking through the fields with his bodyguards. That association got even stronger when I considered that the village of Corleone was about an hour’s drive away. I sometimes felt I could almost hear the music from that movie.
The setting for the courses at Palazzo Arzaga could not have been more different. Located in the lush, rolling hills west of Lake Garda in northern Italy, they wound through oak woodlands and around a restored 15th century mansion and its private chapel, which was decorated with 500-year-old frescoes. Leafy plane trees with their dappled, bark-lined cobblestone drives. Goats and cows grazed in nearby fields. The Dolomites rose to the east, snow covering their highest peaks even in the middle of summer. And to the north was a quarry from which white Botticino marble was still cut.
There are 27 holes at Palazzo Arzaga. Jack Nicklaus II designed the first 18 very much in the parkland style, with wide, tree-lined fairways and deep, grass-faced bunkers. Aged church towers dotted the landscape all around the course, their bells ringing hourly. When I started my round one Saturday morning, I noticed mine was the first tee time of the day. At 9 a.m. And no one else was on the course. Including members of the green staff, who didn’t start showing up until 10.
Now, that is what I call casual golf.
The Nicklaus course opened in 1998, and a year later, the resort brought a new nine-hole layout on line. Gary Player served as architect for that track, and his goal was to create a sort of inland links with revetted bunkers to complement Jackie’s work – and to give the golf some variety. I found Player’s to be a charming and equally pleasurable course that demanded a wide repertoire of shots if you had any hopes of scoring well. I had to hit fades and draws, lob wedges and bump-and-runs, and its quiet isolation gave me the sense of playing my own private course, or at the very least the course of a golf-obsessed Italian count. The only drawbacks were some of the walks between greens and tees; a few were ridiculously long.
Still, I found the Player course worth playing more than a couple of times, including one late afternoon when I left my wife and daughter by the Palazzo pool so I could get in an emergency nine, and work off in advance the pasta I knew I’d be eating for dinner.
Thinking back, I cannot help but think of my friend who had asked me earlier this year about golf, Italian-style. And I am happy to stick with my answer.
Molto buono, indeed.