Clive Agran travels to the north-east region of Italy – Friuli-Venezia Giulia – where stunning mountainous backdrops frame picturesque parkland courses, and unspoilt villages, cultured cities, and a beautiful coastline are among its many attractions
Loading a set of golf clubs onto the ‘oversize’ belt at Gatwick for my flight to Italy felt a little peculiar, principally because my destination was Venice. More appropriate, surely, than clubs and balls would have been an easel and paints. Italy is rightly famous for its glorious culture, opera, cathedrals, art and architecture. On the sporting front, Italians are passionate about football, love cycling and enjoy tennis, but golf?
A modest trickle of top Italians have made an impact at the highest level. The most successful, Costantino Rocca, is also perhaps the best known and loved. More recently Francesco and Edoardo Molinari have enjoyed success on the European Tour, while Matteo Manassero and, more latterly, Renato Paratore, are both precocious talents surely destined for further success. But there isn’t the depth of talent there is in Sweden, France or, dare I say it, merry old England.
Part of the problem is the popular perception in Italy of golf being an elitist sport. That, however, is about to change, and the catalyst prompting the shift is the unexpected coup the Italian Golf Federation pulled off in overcoming stiff competition from Germany, Spain and Austria to secure the Ryder Cup in 2022. Their bid included a firm commitment to ‘grow the game’ domestically.
In 2022 the Ryder Cup will be staged at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, which is 10 miles from the centre of Rome. Although I’ve not golfed there, I have twice been to the ‘Eternal City’ and was therefore grateful for the opportunity to discover a different part of the country.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the most north-easterly region in Italy. Despite the name, Venice is not part of it, but it is next door, and Venice airport is an alternative to Trieste and Treviso. Another city of note is Udine, possibly best known as the home of Udinese Calcio football club. Fairly central, it’s a convenient base from which to explore the region.
If the anticipated Italian Golf explosion takes place, it’s just conceivable that Golf Club Udine will become one of the area’s major attractions. While I was there, it was hosting the Senior Italian Open with a field that included such notable names as Ronan Rafferty, Barry Lane and Costantino Rocco himself. Welshman Stephen Dodd recorded his maiden Senior Tour win with a three-round score of nine under, just edging out compatriot and former Ryder Cup hero Phillip Price by a single shot.
The competitors heaped praise on this delightful parkland course that lies on the edge of the beautiful village of Fagagna, only about eight miles from Udine. Established in 1972 and built on moraine brought down from the surrounding mountains by mighty glaciers, it benefits from plenty of elevation that has allowed its two architects – Marco Croze and former European Tour player John Harrison – to create an interesting and attractive course. A few of the holes are rather quirky and don’t be surprised to find a tree in the centre of the fairway.
A fast stream tumbling down from the surrounding snow-capped mountain features on a few holes, but the magnificent old oaks and beeches pose the principal threat as well as adding glorious colour in the autumn.
The course is certain to get even better, as Gabriele Lualdi, who bought the club in 2013, is investing significant sums to improve it. It already possesses impressive environmental credentials, underlined by a solar-panelled roof on the trolley shed, which re-charges the buggies.
What looked to this casual observer to be a spectacular, two-tiered, driving range turned out to be a stunning adjoining hotel. In fact the 33-bedroomed Villaverde Hotel and Resort is far more than a luxurious hotel. With its state-of-the-art Spa and Wellness Centre, it offers everything an enthusiastic golfer could possibly want, including advanced medical facilities.
One of the great pleasures of golfing abroad is that the experience is often markedly different from golf at home. Of course, the rules and equipment are the same, and 18 holes is standard, but it’s a real bonus to be aware you’re in a different country. And never for a moment while knocking it around Castello di Spessa golf club, could you forget where you were. With the impressive Spessa Castle overlooking proceedings and the course weaving through the famous Collio vineyards, it is quintessentially Italian.
It’s possible that Italians play golf for slightly different reasons and building an appetite and developing a thirst to better appreciate the glorious food and marvellous wines after the round may feature more prominently with them than it does with us. After a truly memorable meal in the adjoining ‘Tavernetto’ I was treated to a fascinating tour around the castle winery, and an inevitable – and hugely enjoyable – wine tasting.
Another tour, this time around the nearby town of Gorizia, was a sobering experience. Italy fought on our side in the First World War, and Gorizia was on the front line and suffered as a consequence. Despite a battering, much remains including an impressive castle with splendid views of the surrounding countryside.
The southern end of Friuli-Venezia Giulia borders onto the Adriatic Sea, and the stretch of coastline from Trieste in the south-east corner to near Venice on the western end is extremely popular with tourists. Like Gorizia, Trieste is fascinating, and much of its history features serious conflict. It, too, has been squeezed between rival forces and has changed hands several times.
Half-an-hour west of Trieste, Golf Club Grado lies alongside a large lagoon and is consequently liberally sprinkled with sparkling water hazards. These attract a spectacular variety of waterfowl, including herons, swans, ducks, geese and flamingos, which add considerably to the overall appeal of an extremely attractive and atmospheric course. Take plenty of old balls and you will certainly enjoy this delightful and distinctive course.
Possibly the toughest challenge was saved until last. Like Grado, Golf Club Lignano is no more than a well-struck drive from the Adriatic and is close to the popular resort from which it gets its name. Maintained in superb condition with the well-trimmed fairways attractively shaped so that there are no unnaturally straight-lined edges, it somehow manages to draw the very best out of those fortunate enough to play it. Two large waste bunkers add variety to the problems it poses and enhance its already considerable visual appeal. Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s a modern spa and exceptionally comfortable hotel at the rear of the clubhouse.
Judging by the numbers of women playing the courses and children learning the game on the putting greens and driving ranges, Italy has already embarked on a programme to broaden the game’s appeal well in advance of 2022. Attracting Brits to this lovely corner of the country is another goal that deserves to succeed.
GETTING THERE: Ryanair offers daily direct flights to Trieste from London Stansted and a more limited schedule from Bristol, Leeds and East Midlands airports. More regular flights are offered to Venice, which is an hour’s drive from the region.
To find out more about booking a golf holiday to Italy, and to discover more about the regions, visit www.italygolfandmore.com.