17 October 2017
Enjoying a warm Mediterranean climate, a collection of world class golf resorts, and some of Europe’s most scenic towns and coastlines, Sicily should definitely be on your golf holiday hot list says Clive Agran
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, carrying golf clubs and conceding putts no-one would miss, surely.
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 fewer than a thousand golfers among the population of 5m 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.
A recent upsurge in the number of visiting Brits is so easily explained that it doesn’t require the deductive powers of Sicily’s most famous son, Inspector Montelbano. Quite clearly it was the opening of a second international airport at Comiso in 2013 that triggered the influx. What is uncertain, however, is which is the greater attraction, the golf or the haunts of the fictional detective whose exploits were broadcast on BBC Four on Saturday nights.
Leaving to one side the man who is evidently doing for Sicily what Bergerac did for Jersey, let’s work our way anticlockwise around the island, starting from the other international airport at Palermo, and play five of the eight courses.
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.
Although endowed with pretty well every sporting facility you might want, it’s the golf courses that are the principal attraction of this fabulous five-star resort. And they don’t disappoint. Both are beautifully presented and in outstanding condition, making it tough to choose between them. Why not play on the one the European Tour uses for the Rocco Forte Open? That’s not possible because a composite course made up more or less equally of holes from the East and West is used. Incidentally, big-hitting Alvaro Quiros lifted the trophy in May when he edged out Zander Lombard in a play off.
Both courses were designed by Kyle Phillips and opened in 2009. Phillips believes that golf should be fun, and that players shouldn’t spend hours searching for lost balls. Consequently, his fairways are inviting and it’s principally the quality of the approach that determines how well or badly you score.
Another truly top-notch resort blessed with a beautiful pair of courses is Donnafugata, which is right down near the southern tip of the island. Again, one of the hottest topics of conversation that divides opinion pretty well straight down the middle of the fairway is which is better. The contenders are the Parkland and the Links. Strictly speaking, the Parkland is not true parkland and, you guessed it, the Links is too far back from the sea to be even considered in the same category as Carnoustie or St Andrews but, if you feel more comfortable in spikes than cement boots, it’s perhaps as well to say nothing.
Parkland supporters point to the fact that this gently rolling track was given the nod over its neighbour when the Sicilian Open was played here in 2011. Raphael Jacquelin triumphed back then with four rounds in the 60s and a winning total of 12 under par. Controversy, like Mount Etna on the other side of the island, erupted on the final day when failing light prompted one of the officials unilaterally to call a halt to proceedings. His maverick decision was quickly rescinded, allowing some players to complete their rounds while others waited until Monday morning. Confusion reigned, but unsubstantiated suspicions of possible Mafia spot-fixing were never investigated either by the European Tour or Inspector Montelbano.
The fairly open course is fun and far from intimidating. Designed by Gary Player, it weaves around the olive and carob trees dotted about the gently rolling landscape. Although there are a couple of lakes, the odd stream and a bunch of bunkers, the principal threat is posed by the Bermuda grass that deepens the further you stray from the fairways. The first cut of rough is a lot less troublesome than the second, which devours balls more rapidly than a Thompson submachine gun fired off rounds on St Valentine’s Day. Like Al Capone himself, it’s tough stuff, so don’t mess with it.
Although you can see the Mediterranean from various spots, the nearest you get to water on the ‘Links’ course is a couple of large lakes. Populated with a rich variety of ducks, geese and migrating birds, they provide enormous visual appeal and are the dominant focal points on a course that sweeps joyously around them in two impressive bowls.
There’s plenty of elevation, and a number of lofty tees present inviting opportunities to drive into the valley below. Clear definition is provided by bushes that evidently flourish in the sandy soil and bear a striking resemblance to the gorse and broom found on genuine links – they even have yellow flowers. An almost complete absence of trees enhances the links look, while a solitary and impressive pine adds interest to the ninth.
Wide horizons and strong briny breezes blowing in from the Mediterranean further augment an authentic sense of seaside golf, so why wasn’t the Links chosen to host the Sicilian Open? At over 7,000 yards off the tips, it’s plenty long enough. Apparently, and somewhat surprisingly, the fear was the pros would find it too difficult. Ridiculous!
An unfair criticism could be that these two superb courses, together with all the other wonderful facilities, discourage Donnafugata guests from ever leaving the resort, except to fly home, thereby missing out on the lovely local towns of Ragusa and Modica, sensational seafood restaurants, stunning Baroque architecture, honey-coloured churches and palazzos, tours around chocolate factories and wineries and, of course, I-spying Montalabano landmarks.
There’s no time to dwell, as we must head up the east coast to a course that’s easier to play than it is to say, Allegroitalia Siracusa Golf Monateri. The first word was added at the beginning of this year when Allegroitalia took over the management of the place. The lovely hotel, which is an old monastery with modern additions, was deemed to be the priority, and so the bulk of considerable recent investment has been lavished on it rather than the course. The latter enjoys a great layout that weaves between orchards, groves and cacti. However, the lack of signage and indifferent condition rather let it down. These are matters management assured me will soon be corrected.
Continuing north up the east coast past Augusta, no less, we climb up the side of Mount Etna to a lovely spot 600 metres above sea level, and, consequently noticeably cooler. As you might expect, the course at the Etna Golf Resort and Spa enjoys a great deal of elevation, and some of the tee boxes are way up high in the sky. Higher still is the summit of Mount Etna, whose brooding presence is very apparent. The buggies are noticeably quicker than normal, possibly to facilitate a fast escape in the event of an unexpected eruption.
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 frequently as Etna erupts.
Guy Roberts, the club’s English marketing manager, kindly invited me back. Frankly, it’s an offer I almost certainly won’t refuse.