Land of opportunity

By JD

Italy ought to be one of the world’s great golf destinations, but until now it has remained a backwater. GCA asked a selection of people involved with the Italian golf industry what’s needed for this to change.

Although there are plenty of examples to the contrary – Bandon, Barnbougle, perhaps even parts of Scotland – it’s reasonable to assume that a destination with much to offer visitors beyond just golf will be more successful than one focused entirely on the game. Golfers, after all, don’t usually just play, eat and sleep, and even if they do, they often have families who prefer to spend their time doing something other than whacking a small white ball.

If one accepts that a destination that offers golf plus other attractions is inherently more likely to succeed than one that has only golf, it’s pretty surprising that some countries haven’t made more of a stir in the world of golf tourism. Around the south of Europe, one good example is Greece, which, with its history, successful general tourist industry and spectacular coastline would seem a natural candidate for golf development. Another would be France, which does at least have a substantial golf sector, but isn’t really a major player in the holiday golf market. But Italy stands out above anywhere else in the region: truly a country that has everything a golf destination needs, except the golf.

Beautiful coastline? Mountains? The most amazing historic towns and cities, containing a large proportion of Western art’s greatest treasures? Europe’s most interesting and deeply enmeshed food and wine culture? Italy has all of these. It even has a long history of golf. As with many European countries, it was wealthy Englishmen who brought the game to Italy: the oldest course in the country is believed to be GC Menaggio, whose first nine holes were built in 1907 by a British businessman living on Lake Como. The course was extended to eighteen holes in 1919. In 1912, GC Bogliaco on Lake Garda was built by a local hotelier to satisfy British tourists. In 1928, car magnate Henry Ford came to Venice on holiday and was disappointed not to be able to play golf; Ford convinced his friend Count Volpi di Misurata, president of the local hotel association to build a course, and in 1930 the nine hole GC Venice-Alberoni was opened (it was extended into Italy’s first championship course after the war by CK Cotton, and became the venue for the Italian Open in 1955). And, in 1926, the expat British designer Peter Gannon built Italy’s greatest course, Villa d’Este, which still rates highly in polls of Europe’s top venues. Despite all this, though, at no point has Italy attracted a large number of visiting golfers to come and share its treasures, golfing and otherwise. What on earth has gone wrong?

Italian golf architect Luigi Rota Caremoli wonders if Italy’s natural and historic treasures are not so appealing, they outweigh the desire to play golf. “The optimal weather, the mountains, the lakes, the coasts, the seaside, the rivers, the natural parks: all of these create the perfect conditions to live ‘in the green,’” he says. “Maybe this removes people’s need to spend a day on a green golf course?”

This is not to say that golf has no traction in the country. In fact, over the last two decades, a game that was largely played by the social elites of the leading northern Italian cities has grown significantly. In 1988, Italy had 28,000 registered golfers and 88 courses, while by 2008, this had grown to 96,000 players and 262 golf courses, plus more than 100 practice ranges. This amounts to an increase of around three per cent each year, a perfectly reasonable rate of growth.

As in Germany with Bernhard Langer and Spain with Seve Ballesteros, the emergence of a native golf hero helped kick-start Italian golf. “Things changed with the first Italian international tournament victories by Costantino Rocca,” says golf architect Dr Wilfried Moroder. “Especially when he finished second in the 1995 Open Championship, and almost won, a kind of national pride began.” And now, with the potential being shown by young Italian amateur Matteo Manassero, the game might just be set for another boost. “Now, we have a TV channel that broadcasts every single tournament on the European tour,” says Matteo Silvestri of Italian golf contractor Greenmakers, which is currently building the Donnafugata course in Sicily on behalf of Gary Player Design. “Plus, the most important newspaper in Italy gave great prominence to Matteo Manassero’s performance at the 2009 Open – there was a big picture in the centre of the first page. This was quite unbelievable considering the current popularity of golf in Italy. Golf is being pushed much more than a few years ago.”

Just as in several other southern European countries, political hostility to golf, either at municipal, regional or national government level, has had an impact on new golf development. “The problems are mainly political and down to ignorance,” says Silvestri. “In Italy, golf is considered a game for a few rich people, because of the high cost of practicing golf compare to other popular sports. Politicians have not understood the enormous advantages in creating a golf destination for tourism, especially in terms of attracting visitors during the September-May off season. Another big problem is bureaucracy. Foreign investors are really scared by it, as are the Italian ones in truth. But now things seem to be getting better.”

Caremoli supports this view. “The minimum time taken to win permissions to create a golf course is about four years,” he says, adding that, even once planning consent has been awarded, problems can still arise. “There are also some initiatives with all the necessary permissions in place that have been temporarily stopped to verify petitions made by environmentalist groups. There is one project that after 18 years and three different properties, still hasn’t received a positive or negative answer from the authority in charge!”

Kevin Ramsey of American design firm Golfplan, who has recently completed the new Terme di Saturnia course in Tuscany, says political problems don’t necessarily stop golf being built, but they do make it hard to earn a return. “Land acquisition and government approval are incredibly difficult to obtain and unpredictable,” he says. “Typically developers are unable to change zoning to allow for any type of housing or resort hotel development. They are allowed to modify the interior of existing structures but typically not the exterior. This leaves the developer with few resources for revenue. Either the club becomes private or daily-fee which are typically cost prohibitive.”

Italy, which became a nation state only in the middle of the nineteenth century, remains a country of vast regional differences in terms of wealth, political outlook and culture. Caremoli stresses that golf, which came first to the affluent north, has remained dominant in that part of Italy. “There is still a big difference between the north and the centre/south of the country,” he says. “In the five more economically developed north regions are concentrated 291 golf facilities and around 70,000 golfers, while in the centre there are 55 and in the south, including the islands, 32. As is the case across Europe, we know that the increase in golfers must come about through low-cost courses: these really only exist in the five northern regions. Even there they are still few and far between, but we hope they will spread to all of Italy.”

With golf participation among Italians growing at a steady pace, it is to tourists that many in the country are looking to transform the golfing landscape. Kevin Ramsey says that both are important, but that resort golf developments are crucial in less affluent areas: “They both have their place. Native Italian golfers help grow the game from within and create a local market and demand. Golf academies in key locations could help drive this and be viable business ventures as well. Golf tourism will help in job creation and boost local economies with both room tax and job creation.”

Increasingly, this means that developers are looking further south and to the islands, where land is less expensive and the weather, especially out of season, is more reliable. This isn’t a new trend – way back in the 1970s, the Aga Khan developed the Costa Smerelda resort area on the island of Sardinia, including the famous Pevero golf course, the construction of which was a massive technical achievement by the Robert Trent Jones firm, involving dynamiting mountainsides to create level enough fairways. But it is clearly increasing in importance: Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, for example, has just opened the Verdura resort in Sicily, with 36 holes of seafront golf designed by Kyle Phillips. “Southern Italy, and particularly Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia, have great potential for golf,” says Matteo Silvestri. “They all feature history, natural beauty, good food and excellent weather. Combined together, what these three regions can offer to tourists has no equal in Europe and the Mediterranean. The two big Sicilian projects, Donnafugata and Verdura, will set a trend. If the success of these courses is be confirmed in the next couple of years and if the operators understand the importance of local golfers, they will be looked at as reference models for other developments.”

“Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia, although the latter needs to modify its absurd law that limits golf course construction within 1,500 metres of the coast, are the regions with the highest number of projects in place, though some of them are still looking for investors,” says Caremoli, who mentions two other Sicilian projects as well as Verdura and Donnafugata. “Il Picciolo, on the slopes of Mount Etna near Taormina and the Le Madonie resort in a citrus plantation and olive grove close to the sea between Palermo and Cefalù, will also be important, giving Sicily six high level eighteen hole courses. Each will have its own particular appeal to traveller golfers from North Europe and Italy, who will be able to play under the warm sun of Sicily even in winter, while appreciating the art, culture, traditions, food, and hospitality of the Sicilian people.”

Wilfried Moroder echoes this view, but also sounds a warning that these relatively poor regions are reliant on external investment to bring about golf development. “Because of their location, the southern regions have big potential, but the local economy is hardly able to organise these kind of investments,” he says. “On the other hand, investments by people from outside are sadly often hard fought. Those regions would have the same characteristics as southern Spain, but for many years lots of chances have been missed. But now something seems to be changing and some golf resorts of international standard are coming up.”

Though agreeing the south and the islands are good areas for growth, Kevin Ramsey sounds a voice of caution. “There has to be more flexibility in the zoning laws to allow for housing or resort development to occur,” he says. “Standalone golf with no other revenue is difficult unless it has a fantastic location and then typically the land is cost prohibitive. Promoting golf recreation with academies and other small courses to spark interest. This could even be tied to universities and linked with turf grass studies or horticultural programmes so that the academies become living classrooms.”

Golf in Italy is on the up, both from a participation and a development point of view. Moroder says he believes there is a new mindset about the Italian game. “Years ago the Italian Golf Federation seemed to bother only about its members, remaining an extremely closed and exclusive circle, and sometimes even giving the impression it believed the fewer people who played golf, the better,” he says. “In recent years things have changed, because the old courses need green fee players to cover their budgets, and former private clubs have opened to the public or to tourism.

“Latterly, even the members of practice facilities are being welcomed in most golf clubs. But it has been a hard struggle.”

This article was initially featured in the October 2009 issue of Golf Course Architecture

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