Sicily Golf: Offers You Can’t Refuse
Many Italian-American families originated from Sicily, and their journey across the Atlantic and into the heart of American life has been the subject of numerous novels and films. But as Paul Trow discovers, this volcanic island off the south coast of Italy is now a serious tourist destination and is particularly keen to roll out the welcome mat to visiting golfers.
One of the most significant migrations in history saw four and a half million Italians leave their homeland, cross the Atlantic, pass through Ellis Island and settle in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A quarter of these newcomers, most of them bereft of property and possessions if not hopes and dreams, came from Sicily.
This influx from the Mediterranean’s largest island has since had a profound impact on the cultural evolution of their adopted country. Famous Americans with Sicilian ancestry include talents as diverse as New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia, sports personalities Joe DiMaggio, Gene Sarazen and Joe Montana, entertainers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Frank Zappa and Lady Gaga, film giants Frank Capra, Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese, and talk show host and chef Rachael Ray.
On the darker side, the likes of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Giuseppe “Joe” Bonnano were among those who imported an altogether less appealing Sicilian tradition into the heart of urban America—that of organized crime. A direct by-product of the Mafia “families” that wielded huge influence in their native land through protection rackets and political corruption, this ugly yet charismatic underworld was brought to wider public attention by The Godfather films of the early 1970s, based on the iconic novel by Mario Puzo, himself the scion of a poor Sicilian family raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
One is led to believe that things are very different in Sicilian-American communities today. Certainly, Sicily has transformed itself over the past half-century—partly through funding from the Italian government, partly through suppressing the Mafia, partly through showcasing its rich heritage and culture dating back almost a millennium before the birth of Christ, and partly through the growth of tourism, with the invaluable support of related bedfellows: good food and fine wine. The fact that Sicily is as autonomous as it’s possible for a region to be without being a separate country has clearly not checked this upward spiral.
Another increasingly prominent bedfellow of the island’s ambitious tourism program is golf. A generation ago, when golf tourism mushroomed into big business around the Mediterranean, Spain and Portugal cashed in while most Italian clubs were run as gated retreats for the country’s social elite. It is no exaggeration to say that visitors, let alone tourists, were discouraged, but a more welcoming attitude is now in vogue. The number of courses in Italy has doubled over the past decade to approach 300, several attached to new hotels and residential developments, and has contributed to a sharp rise in golfing visitors.
Leading the way in southwest Sicily, near the port of Sciacca and the ruins of an ancient Greek temple at Agrigento, is Sir Rocco Forte’s luxurious Verdura Golf & Spa Resort. Opened in 2009, Verdura is home to a hotel with 203 bedrooms, a spa, three restaurants and two 18-hole courses—the East and West, both designed by American architect Kyle Phillips, creator of Kingsbarns Golf Links near St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. Meandering from mountain foothills through olive, lemon and orange groves down to the Mediterranean, these layouts, a composite of which hosted the European Tour’s Sicilian Open last year, are a joy to behold, and play.
The West incorporates more coastal land, but a number of its early holes stretch consecutively along the eastern boundary and a few fairways are a little tight given the exposed nature of the site. The beachside holes are its star attraction—the first glimpse of the sea comes at the 8th and 9th before a four-hole encore from the 15th. It’s these final holes with their uninterrupted views that really steal the show. The 16th and 18th are beautiful two-shotters, the 18th routed right along the shoreline, while the 15th and 17th are short holes dominated by watery backdrops. There are other standouts as well, including the strategic par-5 4th and the strong par-4 5th, where the approach is played partly across a pronounced natural depression. The first coastal hole, the two-shot 8th, is also outstanding.
The more undulating East is equally memorable. Its finishing holes don’t have quite the same glamor, especially the front-nine par-5s that link the central area to the southern beach holes, but there are more directional changes here and plenty of design surprises as well. Highlights include the short par-4 3rd, early water holes at the 5th and 6th, each with stunning outlooks, the intimidating ridge-top par-3 12th and the semi-sunken 13th green. From there the course turns seaward. Both the 14th and 15th are long holes that plummet across glorious linksy ground while the 16th is a short hole played into a wickedly shallow target. The finishing duo are particularly strong—the penultimate hole rises gently into the foot of a Sicilian hillside and the breathtaking par-4 18th crashes from an elevated tee right along the craggy coastline.
The island has certainly warmed to golf in recent years and the other 36-hole newcomer well worth a visit is Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa. Located in the southeast, near the Baroque town of Ragusa, Donnafugata opened in the summer of 2010 and less than a year later hosted the inaugural Sicilian Open. An hour’s drive south of the airport at Catania, Sicily’s second city at the foot of Mount Etna, the resort 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, spa, three restaurants 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, bent-grass 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 a clubhouse overlooking the 9th and 18th greens in the style of an ancient amphitheatre. There is also an historical element to the course—some of the holes are defined by rustic stone walls while the 18th runs alongside an archaeological site and the 6th flanks 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 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, employs air-conditioning to heat its kitchen water, and halves its electricity consumption with LED lighting.
Sicily has two other 18-hole clubs worthy of note. The older, 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 on the north coast, a few miles east of the capital Palermo, Il Picciolo’s designer Luigi Rota Caremoli followed up in 2003 with Le Madonie, sculpted imaginatively around five lakes and framed by stunning views of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Golf, of course, is still only a small part of the equation in Sicily, but these days, for people who “have clubs, will travel,” the welcome is, thank goodness, as warm as the weather.