Phillips’ Sicilian sojourn produces something special, but will it pay, asks Adam Lawrence?
Italy, as this magazine has not been shy to point out, has almost everything in place to be one of the world’s greatest golf destinations. It just needs more golf.
So those of us who love both golf and Italy were cheered when the new Verdura resort, developed by British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, and featuring two eighteen hole courses (plus a nine hole par three track) designed by Kyle Phillips, opened, quietly, late last summer.
Verdura closed for the winter, partly as a result of the well-publicised financial difficulties of its parent company, partly in order to allow the team to work on the golf courses, and partly because the Sicilian climate, though delightful from early spring through to late autumn, is not that conducive to attracting tourists in the dead of winter. The Forte company having secured its future with a new financing package, the resort has opened for its first full season with a sense of optimism about the place.
First the good bits: Sicily is a beautiful island, with mountains, beaches and culture all in plentiful supply. Verdura sits on a really special piece of property, all 270 hectares (550 acres) of it; hemmed in by hills, it spills gently down to the water’s edge, creating sea views from most parts of the site, plus a sense of seclusion from the outside world.
Hiring Phillips to design Verdura’s golf was a smart move on Forte’s part; what was perhaps even smarter was asking him to create the overall site masterplan. The architect’s vision has resulted in two fine courses, neither of which can easily be tagged as the better, and which both have a number of memorable waterside holes.
Giving up prime seafront property for golf might be seen by some developers, on some sites, as a business compromise too far, but the nature of the Verdura site, specifically its tilt, means that the resort’s 203 bedrooms and suites all have sea views.
For good measure, Phillips’ golf course routing plans allows for a special composite eighteen that could be used should Verdura attract a big tournament, incorporating all of the resort’s waterside holes. In this respect, Verdura could be a model for seaside golf resorts: neither the golf nor the accommodation has had to suffer to accommodate the other, rather, both share the property’s attributes equitably.
But the resort does have some problems, probably an inevitable consequence of being a pioneering development in a new golf region. Seaside the property may be, but a piece of sandy linksland it’s not. Phillips and his team have sculpted the courses with their usual degree of artistry, but the standard of work by the local contractor was far from perfect, and quite a lot of the work – such as the installation of bunker drainage – has had to be redone. Rough areas are not the waving fescue that would be most appropriate for such a site from a playability and aesthetic point of view, instead being covered by a dense, and in places high sward of weeds. Fortunately, Phillips has designed in plenty of width, but until the weeds are cut down and the roughs reseeded with fescue – a project which director of golf Niall Cameron and his team are starting now – any ball hit off the fairway could easily be lost. The greens crew is staffed in part at least by local Sicilians, the right choice in terms of enhancing the resort’s social sustainability, but it does mean that the experienced members of the team are having to do a rapid job of training their colleagues. Getting Verdura into the condition the site, development and course design deserve is going to be a challenge.
None of this should be seen as talking the resort down. The vertical architecture is spectacular, with two story buildings containing the majority of the rooms, but a lower level of ‘landscape’ rooms, including the vast Presidential Suite, banked into the sloping land. Once the roof garden on these rooms have had more chance to grow, the buildings themselves will hardly be visible from above – it is truly impressive.
And Phillips’ two golf courses match up to the buildings. The architect talks of creating a links feel at Verdura, and in places he really has. The eastern end of the property is wilder and more natural, and here the golfer might genuinely feel he is on a Scottish links, albeit with better weather.
The East course’s epic fifth, for me the standout hole on the entire property, is a massive par four, 464 metres (510 yards) from the championship black tees, and playing straight towards the water. Even from the white tees, the hole is 408 metres (450 yards), with a fairway that slopes from high left to low right and rolls its way forward in true links style. A menacing bunker to the front right of the green suggests that a drive up the high side of the fairway is best, but the camber and the proximity of the weeds make this a route for the bold. Only within 70 metres of the green is the hole’s true challenge apparent: what appears to be a gentle upslope to the green is revealed to stop 15 metres short of the putting surface. By pushing up the green so golfers see only water behind it, Phillips has created a deep swale in front – on the scale of St Andrews’ fifth hole. It is truly among the toughest holes I can remember, perhaps even a little too tough (couldn’t that swale have been made a tiny bit shallower?).
But it’s not all fearsome difficulty. The East’s sixth is a tiny par three, less than a hundred metres from many tees, with a green so close to the rocky foreshore that a pulled shot to a left pin could easily finish on the beach. And on the West, the eighth, ninth and tenth, respectively a stout par four, a wonderful short four with great risk-reward characteristics and another tiddler of a par three, occupy this same corner of the property.
Elsewhere on the course, perhaps my favourite feature was the East’s third green. Only 321 metres from the championship tees, the long, narrow and angled green is defended by several deep bunkers, including a mean trench at the back that will snaffle a high proportion of approach shots. The angle of the green means that, for all but the most confident wedge players, a tee shot to the far right of the fairway is vastly preferable; in several plays, the hole more than held its own during my visit. What is most impressive is that it occupies some of the flattest and least interesting land on the property – showing how clever design can enable good golf even without much in the way of natural feature.
While the West course, which has more holes directly on the water, including a fun finishing stretch of four between the resort buildings, clubhouse and beach, will probably get more play, I think on balance I prefer the East. It has, I think, a better mix of holes. I would like to return to play the composite though!
The central question for Verdura is what it is for. As the Forte group’s first golf project and first resort, it’s perhaps inevitable that the owners will take a while to find the right marketing message. Selling it as a beach and spa resort with golf attached seems odd though, when over 500 of the site’s 550 acres are devoted to the game (plus I should add that the beach is not among the world’s best).
Yet as a pure golf destination it also has issues to overcome. Being a pioneer comes at a price, and the lack of additional golf nearby – the Donnafugata resort near Ragusa is fully three hours drive away – means golfers will have to be satisfied, for the foreseeable future at least, with what Verdura has to offer. In this respect, Phillips’ delivery of two high quality courses, rather than producing one standout and one lesser track, is without doubt a masterstroke; it will make the job of retaining golfers’ interest far easier.
The other issue is whether the accommodation is a little too luxury – and thus too expensive – for a golf-focused resort. Verdura’s marketing team have to craft their message with care, aiming at a select audience of golfers who value more than just playing round after round; they need to stress the cultural and natural treasures to be found in this part of Sicily, principally the World Heritage site at the Valley of the Temples in nearby Agrigento, one of the most important elements of the classical Greek world. It is a formidable task, and there is much work to be done. But the elements for one of Europe’s best golf resorts are without doubt in place.
This article first appeared in issue 19 of GCA, published January 2010.