Jutting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea, Sicily is home to Mount Etna, Catholicism, the Mafia and gelato. Not necessarily in that order. If the Mafia are still influencing the everyday life of Sicilians, it is found in their bridge-building.
Not the cross community spirit kind, but the physical ones, actual bridges; there are hundreds strung along the road out of Palermo and anyone who has seen Goodfellas knows that construction has always been a Mob staple.
When I was offered the opportunity to join Sir Rocco Forte (the international hotelier, son of Lord Forte and No. 353 in the Sunday Times 2014 Rich List), along with a select group of European golf journalists to take part in the inaugural Rocco Forte Invitational tournament at his Sicilian Resort of Verdura, I must say, I jumped at the chance.
The charm of Verdura extends well beyond Sir Rocco’s casual conversation or even Kyle Phillips’ impressive pair of courses winding their way through olive groves, mountains of moved earth and even the odd lemon tree. It also has a multi-award-winning spa, Sicilian cooking classes and introductions to the dark arts of mixology — which regular readers will know I am a proud connoisseur of.
Trying to set Verdura apart, Sir Rocco didn’t shy away from providing facilities for everyone, including children. It has a play and pool area, a dedicated kids club (Verduland) and also beach and water sports activities for the older ones (Youclub).
The par 3 academy course offers introductory lessons for children and beginners and is in as fine nick as the two main courses. There are also pedal bikes everywhere, each one available to any passing guest, allowing them to get from one end of the resort to the other (it has over a mile of beachfront) without needing to walk or wait for the
complimentary taxi service.
There are even several smaller bikes for the resort’s younger guests — probably not intended for one of our group of journos who managed to liberate, gleefully I’d add, the tiniest bike of them all, joyriding his way to the course on the first day in a manner one would expect Coco the Clown to arrive in for his monthly medal.
The format for the Rocco Forte Invitational wasn’t medal but a Stableford team event, with two scores counting and played over two days on both East and West courses. Unusually for Sicily there had been a heavy thunderstorm the previous day which had left the course a bit softer than desired, but potentially more scoreable.
My team included a Dutch “don’t talk about the football” golf journalist; a German who boasted of fixing Lee Westwood’s putting troubles in a proam a few years back; and, inevitably, Coco. I liked our chances, especially when it turned out that Coco played off four.
The West’s charm arrives with a beautiful stretch of holes from the 8th to the 12th that plays towards, along and away from the sea. They are characterised by built-up dunes and risk/reward drives. Although it isn’t links, far from it, there are elements that make it reminiscent of a Kingsbarns or Dundonald.
For a relatively flat piece of land, Phillips managed to create an awful lot of gradient and offers a treat with its four closing holes, including the 17th, a par 3, playing close to the sea before the 18th finishes underneath the clubhouse terrace and where a refreshing Nastro Azzuro awaits.
After day one we surmised we were leading, so the wine tasting at the nearby Planeta Vineyard tasted all the sweeter for it. Planeta, for those interested in vineyards and wine tasting (Mrs Clive is a self-proclaimed authority), still manages to possess casks of old-world charm with a very contemporary food and wine experience, all housed in a 16th-century barn.
It was almost a shame my better half wasn’t with me to enjoy the wonderful occasion. Back at the resort, the rooms were exquisitely appointed; the bathroom even managed room for a fruiting lime tree!
There are shelves full of Italian novels too — all in English — which might well have been read, had I not found myself, in a fit of over-confidence, enjoying the company of my teammates back in the bar sampling some the best Moscow mules you’ll ever taste, followed by two or three of the most exquisite Sicilian martinis the area has to offer.
The following day we tackled the the East, which is the stronger of the two; with raised greens, deeper bunkers and some severe slopes on the putting surfaces. All typified by the 11th, a par 5, just shy of 600 yards, where the green always seems to be just around the corner and just out of reach.
For the Sicilian Open in 2012, won by Danish star Thorbjorn Olesen, a composite course was made comprising eight holes from the West and 10 from the East, which was just as well because both courses weave in and out of each other constantly.
While our play wasn’t as stellar as day one, it was still pretty strong, even including an eagle and a few birdies. And in true Sicilian style, the scoring at the prize-giving resembled nothing like the format we had all been playing to, leaving a few of us confused.
Ultimately, our team came up short by just a single point meaning we were now the proud owners of a rather fine Verdura-embossed golf shirt. While we resisted the temptation to blame the Dutchman for not being a team player, you could not fault the enthusiasm in which we commiserated with several more martinis and incomprehensibly amusing pan-European banter.
And if you see a slightly rosy-cheeked, amely chap playing golf at your club with a bright red Verdura golf shirt, two sizes too big, that’ll be me.