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golf sicily

Sicily: A golfing destination ‘par eccellentissimo’

Clive Agran almost has the Italian island to himself as he finds spectacular golf and a close call with a volcano
 

If, when you think of Sicily, you see thick-set men in dark glasses and spats, carrying violin cases and making offers no one could possibly refuse, you might have to think again and instead picture in your mind’s eye athletic-looking people dressed in sporty apparel and swinging golf clubs.

Shaped like a deflated football and sitting just off the toe of Italy, this sun-soaked island is rapidly establishing itself as a golf destination par eccellentissimo despite the fact that there are reckoned to be no more than about a thousand golfers among the population of five million living in an area 60 times the size of the Isle of Wight.

Consequently, the eight full-sized courses are effectively for the exclusive use of overseas golfers from both mainland Italy and elsewhere. Evidently, it was the opening of a second international airport at Comiso ten years ago that initiated the boom in tourism.

First stop is the famous Verdura Resort, which nestles next to the warm Mediterranean Sea on the south-west of the island. Passing through the gated entrance and swooping down to the elegant contemporary hotel, you very quickly realise you’re somewhere special.

The only disconcerting aspect is the freaky similarity of the ‘RF’ Rocco Forte logo to the famous and familiar Roger Federer equivalent.

Extracting positives from what might appear to be negatives is a common trait among sportsmen in general and golfers in particular and so when a violent storm crashed into Sicily and washed away 14 of the 36 holes in November 2018, instead of weeping into their Pasta alla Norma, the senior management at Rocco Forte Hotels, doubtless heavily influenced by the golf-loving Rocco Forte himself, decided to seize the opportunity to create something even better out of the carnage.

The devastation was evenly spread between the East and West courses with both losing seven holes. Insofar as a victim of such a calamity could consider themselves lucky, the Verdura Resort was fortunate in that they were blessed with two adjacent layouts and so the loss of 14 holes still left them with one complete course and a few holes to spare.

golf sicily

Both courses were created by arguably the finest designer currently operating in Europe, Kyle Phillips. And so it was hardly surprising that the man responsible for Kingsbarns and Yas Links was given the task of producing even more spectacular holes than existed before the storm struck. 

With the offending river and innocent Mediterranean bordering the site, water was inevitably destined to be a major factor in both courses and the new holes cleverly maximise this attractive asset.

Since Kyle Phillips believes that golf should be fun and time shouldn’t be wasted searching for balls, the fairways are inviting and it’s principally the quality of the approach that determines how well or badly you score.

With the mountains providing a beautiful backdrop, the courses roll gently around the coastal strip with occasional olive trees and orange groves adding visual interest.

Nowhere can you not see the Mediterranean and the most scenic holes run alongside the white-sand beach. And although opinion is pretty evenly divided as to which is the better, the West gets my vote simply because the closing seaside stretch provides a fitting climax to a breath-taking challenge.

In the extremely unlikely event you tire of playing golf in the sun, the alternative attractions include the magnificent Irene Forte Spa, beautiful beach, tennis courts, all manner of water-sports and a mouth-watering array of bars and restaurants.

There’s also a performance centre, which includes all the latest gizmos to measure everything from your smash factor to weight distribution. And there’s also a challenging par-three course as well a terrific driving range and short-game area.

Astute readers will discern a progressive increase in altitude as this article progresses and we now rise from sea level to venture into the hills around Syracuse on the south-east corner of Sicily to visit I Monasteri Golf Club at the Borgo di Luce Luxury Resort.

If you only like to play golf on perfectly manicured courses then I Monasteri is almost certainly not for you. However, if you don’t mind a little roughness around the edges in return for a more natural experience on a perfectly lovely course that oozes character and quirkiness then, like me, you’ll be seduced by its enormous charm.

Eminently walkable and set against a background of dramatic limestone escarpments, it weaves around former orange orchards and olive groves. There are also walnut trees and any amount of wild asparagus in the equally wild rough.

But the most extraordinary culinary feature is rows of cacti that line either side of the sixth fairway thus effectively narrowing the target area on this extraordinary par four. The cacti were originally part of a prickly pear plantation that would have supplied this exceptionally healthy fruit to the occupants of the adjoining monastery.

The monks have all gone and the accommodation is thankfully very much more comfortable than they would have put up with.  

The spiritual dimension of the place nevertheless endures in the shape of a heavenly spa and a course that facilitates positive communing with nature. And if you have the time, a stroll around Archimedes’ birthplace, the historical nearby town of Syracuse, is highly recommended.

golf sicily

If you want your Sicilian adventure to literally end on a very high note, travel along the east coast and then two thousand feet up the side of one of the world’s most active volcanoes to visit the simply splendid Il Picciolo Etna Golf Resort and Spa. One thing will hit you immediately.

No, not lava but the noticeably cooler temperature, which is a very welcome bonus in summer. Unless it’s cloudy, the other thing you can’t miss is the permanently snow-capped presence of Mount Etna looking down on proceedings

New owners took over the resort a little less than two years ago and are investing heavily both in the exceptionally comfortable accommodation and the remarkable course. It’s the latter we’re principally interested in and the only significant area that obviously needed attention was, if there is such a word, the ‘bunkerage’.

Better sand has been ordered and, by the time you have finished this article, it might already be in situ. My suggestion that refined volcanic ash might more effectively meet the current fashion for things to be more ‘locally sourced’ met with derision.

Tight, tree-lined and truly top quality, the course is a cracker. The only one on the island with no Bermuda grass, it demands precision rather than power and the driver will come out of the bag about as infrequently as Etna erupts.

As you would expect, there’s an abundance of elevation and no shortage of lofty tees. It’s certainly worth investing in a course planner as finishing on the wrong side of a fairway often compromised the second shot and precluded going for the green.

Somewhat unusually, there are six holes in a row from five to ten without a par four, which is rather refreshing, especially for those of us who lack length and for whom uphill par fours are almost invariably out of reach in two.

Incidentally, the helicopter parked behind the sixth green is not a reward for an unlikely hole-in-one on this 500-yard par five but is instead for ferrying those curious to look down the fiery throat of Mount Etna.

For more information on golf in Sicily, visit Play Golf Sicily’s website.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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