Sicily’s golfing market looks ready to erupt

Playing golf on the lower slopes of Europe’s most active volcano; looking for a lost ball amidst the black sand and rocks of hardened lava, and the sound of a helicopter ferrying tourists for overhead views of the highest crater.

Just some of the experiences of negotiating a course at Mount Etna, in Sicily.

Sicily is not among the top golfing destinations in the Mediterranean and its locally-based, registered golfers are numbered in hundreds. But it’s now trying to win a share of a lucrative golf tourism trade dominated by destinations like the Algarve and numerous Spanish sun spots.

Sicily has a population of five million people compared to Ireland’s 6.5 million (north and south). We have 170,000 registered golfers in 430 clubs; Sicily has a mere 600 and only seven, 18-hole courses.

So, golf is really in its infancy in a beautiful island which also includes historical sites and good food and wine among its attractions.

The island’s first 18-hole course, owned by brothers Salvatore and Giuseppe Leonardi, was built in 1989, near the town of Castiglione. The brothers’ have since added a 98-bedroom hotel, with a spa, swimming pool, and all the usual facilities for golfers.

Previously, the Leonardis had been growing nuts, vines, and a range of fruit on their estate but, following a downturn in agriculture, looked at other uses for the land. They decided on golf and started a club which they named Il Picciolo (the woodpecker) after their estate.

It was hoped to draw sufficient membership from Catania, a city 50km to the south. However, a membership of around 170 was not enough to sustain a club and the Leonardis had to look to the tourist market.

Designed by architect Luigi Rota Caremoli, the 5,881-metre track offers fast greens, a variety of conventional and quirky holes and doglegs, bringing lakes, woodland, and mounds of dried lava into play.

A few hundred metres from the back of the 17th tee can be seen a line of crusted, black lava marking the area where the flow from a 1905 eruption ceased.

There are views of Mount Etna, from which smoke constantly billows, from every hole. Eruptions occur from time to time, but nothing that bothers golfers.

The par-72 course has been the venue for five European Ladies tournaments and senior tour events.

One of the most memorable holes is the par-four 13th, a downhill dogleg of 280 metres. There are trees on both sides and a short landing area in front of a tightly-guarded green.

At first glance from the tee box, even a hacker like yours truly realises it’s better to leave the big stick in the bag. A definite iron shot from the tee and then a light wedge over a deep gorge to the green for a safe par... hopefully.

Around here, they still talk of how the famous British player Laura Davies went for the 13th green with a four-iron, and found it, when she won the Italian Ladies Open at Il Picciolo, in 1996.

The index one, par-four 11th hole is a challenge for the best of players, with a lake on the right side of a narrow approach to a green protected by water and a sand bunker. A line of trees all the way up the left side makes the 430-metre hole even more intimidating.

Guy Roberts, golf marketing manager, at Il Picciolo, believes Irish golfers would enjoy golf at the resort, an hour from Catania Airport, and in Sicily generally.

“’The weather is similar here to the Algarve and the Costa del Sol, and in my six years on the island I’ve never seen a prolonged period of rainfall,’’ he said. “There are attractive golf and accommodation packages and Sicily is ideal for a mixed type of holiday which could also include taking in the scenery, ancient sites, and, of course, sampling the local food and wine.’’

Temperatures can reach a high of 35 degrees in July and August, but weather can be ideal for golfing outside of these months. The walk-in green fee for Il Picciolo is €85, but there are sizable reductions for visitors availing of packages to stay in the resort.

A two and a half-hour journey from Il Picciolo is the Donnafugata Golf Resort and Spa, featuring a luxurious hotel and two courses, near Ragusa and only 20 minutes from Comiso Airport.

The par 72, Gary Player- designed parkland track of 6,350m hosted the 2011 Sicilian Open, won by Raphael Jacquelin, of France. As well, the resort boasts a links-style layout, also par 72 but slightly longer, offering variety.

Player designed a parkland course to test the abilities of all levels of golfer and the last three holes, especially, are capable of blotting an otherwise good card. The 16th is a par five, 490-metre dogleg across a lake. Having successfully got over the water from the tee box, most golfers would happily settle for a five here.

Water also comes into play at par four, 17th and if the second shot is not aimed towards the right side of the green, it can easily be pulled by a slope to deep water lurking on the left approach. A fine hole indeed.

The index one 18th is a par four of 389 metres. The drive has to be aimed towards the right side of the fairway to open up the green and avoid dense cover off the left. Then, there’s water left of fairway and bunkers guarding the right side of the green. Only the bravest go for this hole in two, with the more conservative players preferring a layup.

Because of time constraints, we didn’t have time to play the links-style course and settled for a quick, guided tour. On a clear, sunny day, it looked magnificent, with a cooling breeze coming from the Mediterranean, a surprising amount of hills, quite narrow fairways and more than 60 bunkers.

Those familiar with both courses seemed to indicate a preference for the links-style track.

The green fee for each course is €110, but if you’re staying in the resort, you can play for €65. And, if the golf isn’t going well, there’s always the spa.

Food, wine, and spectacular scenery

“Irish people talk about the weather; we talk about good food and wine,” noted Salvatore Leonardi, of Il Picciolo, chatting in the olive groves of a winery under the ever-smoking Mount Etna.

The number of significant wineries in Sicily has grown from a handful to more than 130 in the past 30 years and local brands have been building their international appeal.

A Sicilian wine tasting involves a lot of detailed, enthusiastic explanation from the owner, equal only to the conversation that goes on around succulent Italian food.

Golf is a tiny minority sport in this Mediterranean island. Ideally, it should be part of a package that includes the vino, haute cuisine, scenery, visits to historical sites, Mount Etna and numerous tourist resorts such as Ragusa and Taormina.

Sheila Brazil, of Limerick Travel, which has a designated golf department, has been sending Irish golfers to Donnafugata for several years, with satisfaction reported.

‘’I think there’s further potential in Sicily for smaller groups of golfers, perhaps up to eight people. In its own right, Sicily is a very attractive tourist destination with lots to do,’’ she added.

There are flights from Dublin, in summer, to Comiso, Palermo and Cantania, with the option of returning home through a different airport.

‘Sicilians are very friendly, like the Irish’

A golfing group from Killarney, Co Kerry, recently visited Castiglione, in the foothills of Mount Etna, to mark the 30th anniversary of a twinning arrangement between the towns.

The party included leading hoteliers who are also members of Killarney Golf Club, a representative from Dooks Golf Club, also in Kerry, and Sean Counihan, a former member of Killarney Town Council, now abolished.

Mr Counihan, who has built up close friendships in Sicily, said Killarney is continuing to maintain positive links with Castiglione.

‘’Sicilians are very friendly people, like the Irish in many ways. There’s real potential here for mutual benefit. Some of the bigger hoteliers can see how business can be attracted both ways,’’ he remarked.

The twinning had the imprimatur of the late Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi, a native of Castiglione and the papal nuncio to Ireland for almost 20 years until the late 1980s.

Entertaining an Irish group during his retirement in Castiglione, the diplomat archbishop reportedly played the theme music from the movie, The Godfather, on his organ, hinting at the links between Sicily and the mafia.

Oddly, another friend of Killarney, Enzo Farinella, former cultural attache at the Italian embassy, once said Killarney and Castiglione had something unique in common. He described them as “two towns with volcanic characteristics”.

Sounds bizarre, but the rugged mountain scenery around Killarney is due, in part, to the lava and ashes of an early volcanic period, he pointed out.

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