(With the European Tour visiting Verdura Resort this week we thought we would dig into the archives. This article originally appeared in the August 2011 Print Issue of Flagstick Golf Magazine)
by Scott MacLeod
It is hard to argue that Italy does not provide a superb setting for the game of golf. From stunning mountain vistas to the mesmerizing Oceanside views, it offers up a canvas that more than enhances any layout.
This Mediterranean nation has not exactly been a powerhouse in the world of golf over the years but it is experiencing a revival courtesy of the addition of some amazing new golf properties in the worldwide presence of golf superstars in the form of the Molonari brothers and young up and comer, Matteo Mannesero.
It is a destination poised to attract golf travelers all eager to enjoy not only the attractive fairways but the casual lifestyle that its warm people have always been known for. What’s not to like? Great golf, great wine, great food, all backed by the visual delights of the land that has wrought it all.
Almost two hundred and fifty golf courses are open for play in Italy with seemingly more arriving with each passing year. How big is the market there? So much so that Canadian architect Graham Cooke runs his European office from Turin.
Graham Cooke & Associates have completed six golf course projects in Italy and are currently developing another nine holes for one of those properties. That work has included the renovation of the Circolo Golf Torino in Turin, Italy in preparation for its hosting of the 1999 and 2000 Italian Opens.
Another architect having some success in Italy is Kyle Phillips. Along with his work on the Castello Antognolla Golf Club in Perugia, Phillips is being regaled for one of the finest projects that Italy has seen in some time, the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort in Sicily.
Sicily, for those not aware, is one of the greatest resort areas in all of Europe. The island is home to a melting pot of cultures and physically boasts a landscape like few other places of its size. Farmland, mountains, and beaches – it has it all. Best of all the weather is superb. Sicily enjoys some 2,500 hours of sunshine each year; incredible when you consider that the Italian mainland receives about 2,000 and the famed French Riviera enjoys just 1,500. It makes visits, and golf games, all that more dependable.
There are just a handful of golf courses on Sicily, with a couple dating back to the 1920’s, so demand from the rising tourist population makes a new addition very welcome.
The Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, located on the southwest shore of Sicily, not far from Sciacca and Agrigento, is filling that gap nicely.
Set on 230 hectares with almost two kilometers of private coastline, Verdura provides the solitude many seek in a getaway. The resort opened in 2009 with golf arriving in 2010.
Verdura is part of the growing Rocco Forte family of Hotels. The group now numbers thirteen hotels and resorts throughout Europe with all being very individual in flavor. That said, they specialize if fir class experiences for their customers, including the golf they offer. Verdura was the first of their hotels to offer golf and Sir Rocco Forte, the owner and a keen sportsman, wanted it to be the experience to be first class. To do so he enlisted the help of a designer who is emerging as one of the best on the planet, Kyle Phillips.
Phillips, known for his award-winning work around the world, including Kingsbarns in Scotland, and Yas Links in Abu Dhabi, is enthusiastic about what he wrought from the land in Sicily. The designer had a lot to say about the Verdura project.
As Phillips tells it, although an American, he is more European when it comes to his style of work and Sir Rocco, a member of the R&A, was fairly familiar with his designs in Scotland and England. Through some dealings on the East Lothian Coast of Scotland Forte and Phillips were brought together and although the original project they discussed failed to come through, they left the relationship open to future projects. That came in the form of Verdura.
“There was a lot of thought put into the master plan and it was nice working with him (Forte) in that process. He wanted a low density development without the hustle and bustle you might find in some of the places on Costa del Sol. It was great to get side by side with the owner to get a real feel for what he wanted,” said Phillips who clearly takes pride it not only the courses but the overall look and feel found at Verdura.
As far as the golf, there are forty-five holes offered at Verdura, two championship courses along with a nine hole shorter course. To golfers delight the entire coastline of the property was left to the disposal of Phillips in crafting the holes.
“It’s a links kind of course in terms of the kinds of conditions around the greens, where you have tighter fairway cuts and things like that but it feels like Sicily. I wasn’t trying to replicate Scotland with sand dunes and that kind of stuff, “says Phillips of his work in Italy that actually started back in 2001 as the land for resort was being acquired.
In creating two courses at Verdura Phillips strived to build two courses that would be equally desirable to play. In chatting with Flagstick he mentioned that too often resorts near the water end up building an Oceanside course that everybody wants to be play and then they end up with an inland layout that costs just as much to design and build but is not as attractive to guests. They decided to avoid that.
Phillips explains, “Verdura was set up so that the East and West course have similar contact with the sea and as you go inland you still have sea-views to the most inland point, so both courses are equal.” That said, because of the routing a composite routing would be available if a full sea-side course was desired for a special event, for example a professional or amateur tournament.”
There is a consistency across the golf courses at Verdura that has to be appreciated. The courses serve up enough of a test to challenge better players while the average golfer the 12-15 handicap was always in mind for Phillips as he shaped the holes.
“It’s been really well received, people find it very playable, kind of like Kingsbarns,” he mentions. With the short course on-site there is also room for the new golfer to try out the sport within friendly confines. “It’s important, especially as we introduce new golfer to the game at places like a resort, that we have a place for them as well. It’s kind of like skiing; we don’t want to take a new golfer and push them off the top of the hill on a black diamond run and expect they are going to have a good experience. The short course allows that novice golfer to hit the shots that are really important to learn the approach shots and putts, and get a feel for the game.”
Guests at Verdura will appreciate how the environment was considered in the overall development, not only to ease the impact on the land but also to provide a more tranquil setting. All incoming vehicles are left at a secure location, a former train station, and the duration of your stay is spent moving around on electrical vehicles. Resort staff says the elimination of sound and smoke from gas and diesel vehicles really enhances the calmness you feel on the property.
On the course native plants have been encouraged to prosper, especially in the rough areas, including ground covers and citrus trees. It gives the courses an “embedded” feel that makes them seem more native to the landscape.
Of course, no resort of world-class caliber can exist without amenities to enjoy away from the golf courses.
There are 203 rooms at Verdura including 50 suites. Additional villas are in development. Everything, and I mean everything, is first class.
The low-slung architecture of the hotel does not even limit the view from the golf holes that trundle up the hill above it. Built close to the sea, the views from the hotel are breathtaking.
All rooms have uninterrupted sea views and each has a private terrace or balcony. The spa features multiple pools and additional recreation facilities include a 60 metre outdoor pool, six tennis courts, a soccer pitch and even a helipad. There are several dining and bar areas to fit your mood and even families are welcomed with activities and special area for younger children and teenagers in mind.
A trip to Sicily is an incredible experience, one that you may only take once in a lifetime. That certainly justifies looking into a stay at a place like the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort. The golf, the hotel, the service, the scenery – all first class.
We’ll warn you, it won’t be easy on the pocket book but you’ll be left with memories that will be nothing but priceless.