A whistle-stop tour through Italy's growing golf scene - there's much more to it than just golf
Fabulous food, unique cities of art and stunningly beautiful scenery – Italy deserves its place as one of the world's favourite holiday destinations for many reasons, but for its golf?
Golfers who are tiring of returning to the same old resorts in other parts of Europe should turn their attention to what is one of the continent's fastest growing golfing nations - Italy. The number of Italians playing golf has rocketed in recent years thanks to a mushrooming of fabulous golf courses throughout the country and the sport is continuing to expand at an exciting rate.
Wherever you go in Italy, from the alpine regions of the north to the rolling hills of central Italy and the more exotic south you'll come across new golf courses and resorts to rival any of the more traditional destinations. Benefiting from decades of experience elsewhere, the newer Italian courses are well planned and spacious and most have features that are challenging enough to keep the pros happy while not precluding less experienced players.
The northern classics
Many of Italy's most historic clubs are based in the countryside around Turin and current Golf World Cup champions Francesco and Edoardo Molinari are from the area. They learnt their stuff at La Mandria Golf Club (www.circologolftorino.it). Dating back to the 1950s and located in a former royal hunting estate, the club's two 18 hole courses wend their way through gorgeous woodland.
Right next door is another prestigious club – Royal Park (www.royalparkgolf.it). Also known as I Roveri Golf Club, this is widely held to be one of the nation's best and its 27 holes share the same woodland setting and alpine backdrop as La Mandria.
There is plenty of choice for other places to play in the Turin area and - unless your aim is to stick to just one golf course and play from morning to night - it's a good idea to opt for a hotel in the city and take the opportunity to explore.
Stay in Turin
The 4* Hotel Victoria (Via Nino Costa 4, doubles from about €250), located in a pedestrian side-street in the centre of town, is a good one to go for. It's so quiet and peaceful here that it's hard to believe you're just round the corner from the bustling shops and cafés of central Turin. The cosy bedrooms are beautifully and individually decorated and the hotel's fantastic spa centre is free to guests – a big plus!
Turin was given a facelift a few years ago for the Winter Olympics and it's looked fabulous ever since. Don't miss a visit to the landmark Mole – one of Europe's top cinema museums (www.museonazionaledelcinema.it) is housed here and a lift takes visitors to the top to enjoy a breathtaking panorama. Relax in the city's famed historic cafés, see the outstanding Egyptian museum (www.museoegizio.it) and go for a stroll or boat ride along the River Po.
Green hills and sandy shores
A bit further south, the region of Emilia Romagna is another paradise for golfers. With a dense concentration of golf courses and a tremendously varied landscape that sweeps from the Apennines to the Adriatic, there's something to appeal to all tastes.
Bologna Golf Club (www.golfclubbologna.it), just outside the regional capital, is one of the best established. Designed by British architects Cotton and Harris more than 50 years ago, the design was revamped by Peter Alliss in 2000 and it presents a varied course getting steadily tougher from the first to the 18th hole.
Just 10 minutes from the club, an ideal place to stay is Locanda delle Rose (Via Cassoletta 56, Crespellano, doubles from about €150), a really attractive, country house hotel with eight charming rooms. The owner, Natalia, and her family give guests a really warm welcome and they'll even cook you a meal whatever time of the day or night you arrive. She's specialised in traditional local dishes while her son is a dab hand at Thai food. The locanda is also well placed for reaching Modena Golf Club (www.modenagolf.it).
If you play at Modena, why not look around the Galleria Ferrari (www.galleria.ferrari.com)? The constantly updated exhibition of the world's favourite fast cars is just round the corner from the golf club and it's a must for Ferrari lovers.
Travelling eastwards, still in Emilia Romagna, some of the region's top clubs are located near the coast. One of the best is undoubtedly the Adriatic Golf Club (www.golfcervia.com) in Cervia. With 27 holes - the yellow nine is the toughest - and a splendid setting in the seaside town, this one's a joy to play. There's an unlimited supply of activities and attractions in and around Cervia if there's more to your world than just golf - for starters relax on the fabulous sandy beach, cycle through the cool pine forest or canoe along the canals.
Golf, wine and good food
Not far from the Adriatic and a little way inland is another highly recommended golf course – the Rimini-Verucchio (www.riminigolf.com). It's set in a valley on the Tenuta Amalia wine estate in a stunningly beautiful area full of rocky outcrops, medieval hilltop villages and castles.
Stay right next door to the golf course at the Case Rosse bed and breakfast (Via Tenuta Amalia 107, Villa Verucchio, doubles €80), a small and friendly place set in an appealing old farmhouse. The stone floors and old-fashioned latched doors give it a real country feel and breakfast in the garden on a lazy summer's day can end up turning into an all-morning affair. The wine estate has three restaurants – my favourite is Ro' e Bunì (same website). Set in an atmospheric 16th century mill just a few metres from Le Case Rosse, it serves wholesome and tasty local dishes - plenty of home-made pasta and grilled meats accompanied by the local speciality flatbread, piadina, and washed down with the estate's own wines.
Leaving Emilia Romagna and travelling towards the balmier climes of southern Italy, there are golf opportunities all the way, including a cluster of prestigious clubs around Rome. One of these is the Sheraton Golf Parco De' Medici Hotel & Resort, Roma, (doubles from about €150) where you can play and stay in style at the Sheraton on-site hotel. Décor is contemporary and the hotel is professionally and efficiently run. There's a good choice of restaurants and bars which is good for variety but the best thing about this place is that you need to waste no time travelling to the golf course – it's right here. The resort's complimentary shuttle bus into the historic centre of Rome is handy too so you can explore the Eternal City when you're not playing.
Italy's far south and Mediterranean islands also offer some stunning golf resorts, most of them with quality accommodation and all sorts of alternative activities for any non-golfers in your party and ideal for family groups. One of the most exciting is the luxurious Verdura Golf & Spa Resort (prices vary wildly – contact the resort for info) in south-west Sicily, not far from Agrigento and its famous Valley of the Temples, which dates from ancient Greek times. With two 18 hole courses and a nine hole course designed by prominent architect Kyle Philips, there's plenty to keep keen golfers happy. All the bedrooms of the stylish, traditionally Sicilian stone buildings face the sea – a drink on the terrace while the sun sets over the water is a must - and you can walk directly down to the beach (pebbly but nice all the same) from your room. The whole resort is a car-free zone which adds to the relaxing atmosphere and there's also a fabulous spa centre to help you unwind still more. Another added bonus is the resort's family-friendly facilities – there's stuff here that children and even teenagers really enjoy.
Various holiday companies such as Italy Travel Golf (www.italytravelgolf.co.uk) specialise in golf holidays in Italy – they can advise on multi-centre trips and put together personalised itineraries to include everything from transport and accommodation to green fees.