Just in time for the Ryder Cup—the best of golf in Italy
Italy has an aura about it. An unmistakable charm that emanates from the language, the art, and the food. The country is familiar, but as a golf destination it remains something of a mystery.
All that should change now that the redesigned stadium course at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club has become the host of the 44th Ryder Cup. While the needle on Europe’s golf compass invariably points west toward Spain or north to the UK, an intriguing historical twist means Italy may stake a claim to the origins of the game itself. Some historians suggest golf could be traced to the Roman game of paganica, which involved hitting a wool- or feather-stuffed leather ball with a bent stick. First recorded in 30 B.C., it does sound familiar.
Whatever came of that Roman pursuit, a golf seed was sown and the first green shoots emerged in the Alpine slopes above Lake Como with the Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club, which started life as a 9-holer in 1907 when a British businessman constructed the first layout. Also in the north, Villa D’Este is commonly regarded as one of Italy’s best, regularly appearing in the upper echelons of European golf polls. More recently, the southern island of Sicily has stolen the headlines with the Verdura Resort, which combines sandy beaches, Michelin food, and world-class golf.
Italy promises not just great golf, but also spectacular landscapes, incredible cuisine, and endless vineyards. What follows is a far from exhaustive list of some of the best the country has to offer, which I was able to enjoy thanks to the team at golfarounditaly.com who designed this adventure.
I expected to be disappointed by Ryder Cup host Marco Simone, but wasn’t. Yes, there were echoes of the PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles, Celtic Manor, and Le Golf Nationale in Paris, but there was enough character to distinguish it from the recent brood of European Cup venues. What makes this location special is the wind, which becomes particularly influential on the back nine as it rises up a fairly steep gradient only to loop back down toward the clubhouse.
And if the stiff warm breeze, which intensifies during the day, miraculously doesn’t cause problems, then the deep and tangled rough surely will. Add to that the length of the course and you have an epic test for both the American and European teams. As the course starter put it: “It’s paradise in the middle and hell on either side.”
Marco Simone was originally built in the 1980s by fashion designer Laura Biagiotti and her husband Gianni Cigna. It received a complete reboot in 2018 from Ryder Cup specialists European Golf Design in cooperation with Tom Fazio II with the aim of creating a spectacular match-play venue.
Olgiata Golf Club Rome
With fairways like velvet, Olgiata Golf Club is a privilege to play. The pine-tree-lined corridors emphasize the grandeur of the place, the second oldest club in Rome. The scale of the layout, originally laid out in 1961 by English architect Kenneth Cotton, means many holes luxuriate in undulating land that could easily accommodate an extra par-3 course should the need ever arise. With all 27 holes redesigned in 1996 by Jim Fazio, the course is beautifully presented and a jewel among Italy’s most notable clubs.
If the third nine (the East Course) is plain by comparison to the 18-hole West Course (renovated by Tom Fazio in 2010), the remarkable clubhouse alone is worth the visit—externally modest but internally vast, it conceals long underground corridors that lead to card rooms, hidden restaurants, and verandas.
Antognolla Golf Club Umbria
You’d be forgiven for being unaware of Antognolla Golf Club. My GPS app certainly drew a blank. Nestled in the rustic uplands of Umbria north of Rome, this wonderful romp around a stunning property overlooked by a forbearing castle is probably the best camouflaged track I have ever had the pleasure of nearly missing.
When I eventually unearthed it, I was met by two familiar voices. A pair of American golfers were resting in the shade enjoying a cool, post-match glass of wine. When they discovered my motive for seeking out Antognolla, they took me aside and gently pleaded with me to keep this place a secret a little longer. That wouldn’t be difficult had it not received the title of Italy’s Best Course at the World Golf Awards in 2020 and 2021.
The Robert Trent Jones II layout has recently undergone a series of improvements including a major bunker restoration, new irrigation and drainage systems, a new driving range, and cart path upgrades. Perhaps most impressive are the plans for an all-new resort integrated into the hillside adjacent to the imposing castle seamlessly combining the old with the new.
As the course is surrounded by high peaks, it plays long with approach shots to elevated greens a common conclusion. The fruits of your labors are, however, fantastic views and the crystal-clear mountain air that carries sound around this huge natural amphitheater.
Castiglion del Bosco Tuscany
Italians are partial to precariously positioned hilltop villages crowned by a stoic castle or lofty church steeple. The original owners of Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco liked the idea so much they bought one and made the elevated hamlet into one of the world’s finest hotels.
Forget large reception halls and endless corridors: This is a retreat where you live like a local in townhouses dripping in luxury and a Michelin-starred restaurant. It was voted the No. 1 hotel in the world by Travel+Leisure in 2022 and its winery produces the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino wines.
The Tom Weiskopf course is also suitably lavish, with glorious uninterrupted views of rolling wine-making land. The valleys and natural movement have been brilliantly used to make the course glide through the landscape. “A golf course is simply art on the ground,” Weiskopf once observed. He wasn’t wrong.
Until recently you had as much chance of playing it as bagging an invite to The Met Gala. All that changed with the introduction of hotel-guest access to what is Italy’s only private golf club. It has three tournaments a year (reserved mainly for members) and more greenkeeping staff than daily rounds. Opening it to guests is a momentous and, for us, benevolent move.
La Bagnaia Golf Resort Siena
La Bagnaia Golf Resort instantly impresses with a stellar golf course, sprawling practice facilities, and a clubhouse with Instagram-friendly views of the resort. I arrived the day after the annual pro-am and the course presented well with few signs that 150 golfers had been hacking their way round just a few hours earlier.
Like Castiglion del Bosco, La Bagnaia was regenerated from a traditional hilltop village, this one sporting a 12th-century chapel. Cobbled streets and courtyards separate the townhouses where the 72 rooms and suites are allocated. A dominant central villa provides dining services, an enticing swimming pool, and comprehensive views of the estate.
The large clubhouse sits proudly on a brow of hill. Below, the undulating course entices but consideration off the tee is advised. The short par-four 6th and testing par-five 7th illustrate the flaws of reaching automatically for the big stick; equally, other holes demand it. Elevation is a key theme with many holes boasting lofty tees or conversely winding fairways leading to plateau greens.
Ugolino Golf Club Florence
The history of this club can be traced to the non-Roman origins of the game in Italy. The founders of Ugolino initially built an 18-hole course in Florence in 1889. The club was then relocated south of the city in 1934 to the rolling slopes of the Chianti Hills.
The land is idiosyncratic, providing scope for unique and testing holes. The front nine is especially compact, quirky, and absorbing, as old courses can often be. The small, flat greens make modest targets, compensating for the length, which falls short of 6,500 yards.
Unofficially named The Hilly Course, Ugolino has an old-world charm rich in originality and charisma. During the 1983 Italian Open, Seve Ballesteros fabulously chipped in at the par-four 9th (then the 18th), which not only delighted the crowds and carded him an eagle, but also secured his place in the tournament playoff.
While other clubs may have modern conveniences such as air-conditioning, Ugolino is original. From the clubhouse to the starter’s hut, everything is as it was when the club opened its doors. In that lies something special.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi Florence
As soon as you enter the reception area, the distinctive perfume of a slick, modern, and lavish resort washes over you. From the tailored staff to the flowing interior design, it’s easy to be impressed by Castelfalfi.
The resort’s hilltop location overlooks an iconic Tuscan landscape—lush idyllic vineyards and olive trees—that seems to encapsulate everything you hoped the region would provide. The hotel is cool and contemporary, the staff courteous, and the bars and restaurants effortlessly put together. The 27-hole layout is one of a number of activities provided, including an adventure park, tennis courts, and various hiking routes.
The 18-hole Mountain Course lives up to its name. Elevated flat greens are the prize here after epic drives and testing approach shots combine with dramatic views to give a proper test that stretches to nearly 7,000 yards. I wrongly assumed the 9-hole Lake Course would be the lesser of the two layouts but was happy to be proved wrong. This
is especially evident on the greens, where clever undulations make final putts more considered.
A succession of hot summers has persuaded the greenkeeping team at Castelfalfi to make the transition to Bermuda grasses. The result of their toils will be a course better suited to the increasingly hot conditions.
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