On the Robert Trent Jones Jr. Trail in Italy
For some strange reason Italy doesn't have the same golfing appeal as some other Continental European countries, such as France, Portugal and Spain. That's not to say Italy should be overlooked as a golfing destination – far from it.
We reported on the Friuli Venezia Giulia region during 2016 then travelled to Sicily the following year. We decided it was high time to head back to this beautiful country to check out further golfing options, this time in Italy's heartland.
Our contact at Braemar Golf recently informed us about a renovated Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout in Central Italy that might be of interest to us so we investigated further and found there were another couple of RTJII tracks within easy reach, prompting us to build a short trip around visiting all of these modern designs.
The American architect now has around thirty courses to his name in Europe, including Lubker and Miklagard in Scandinavia, Palmares and Penha Longa in Portugal, Lage Vuursche in The Netherlands and Zala Springs in Hungary.
We also decided to add a few other courses to our itinerary to shine a light on further golfing options between Rome and Florence, in the beautiful regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.
After flying into Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we drove two hours north towards Perugia then a little further on to the village of San Giovanni del Pantano, where Antognolla sits in hilly, wooded seclusion. Because a 12th century castle overlooks it, this course is located in rather a fairytale setting.
It actually opened at the end of the 1990s but the property has changed hands a few times since then, with the current owners investing heavily in Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s renovation of the golf facility. New irrigation and drainage systems have been installed to improve playing conditions and the bunker upgrade work is of the highest order.
The club is hosting the 43rd edition of the PGA of Italy Championship, played over three rounds, between the 14th and 16th September, and César Burguière, Director of Golf commented: “we have made huge progress in the last eighteen months and hosting this prestigious event is a great reward for all the hard work from the team.”
A 1.5-hour drive west of Antognolla brings you to La Bagnaia Golf and Spa Resort, situated a short distance from Siena, one of the cultural jewels in the Tuscany crown. The 18-hole layout here nestles within a huge, 1,100-hectare estate that dates back many centuries and spreads across two adjacent hamlets, Borgo Bagnaia and Borgo Filetta.
The course is another RTJII design which opened in 2011, designed in the style of an “inland links,” and fairways have been fashioned across a gently undulating landscape with the golf component complemented by a selection of accommodation options at a Curio Collection by Hilton boutique hotel. There’s also a nearby Buddha Spa by Clarins for post golf relaxation.
We then headed back south, taking in a couple of courses en route to our next Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout at Terre dei Consoli, close to the capital city of Rome. The first of these tracks on our sideways swipe was encountered at the Argentario Golf Resort & Spa on the Tyrrhenian coast, where the resort is set out on the Monte Argentario promontory.
It’s a spectacular place to play golf, especially on the front nine as golfers are afforded fabulous long views out over Orbetello Lagoon. In such a natural spot, you can hardly imagine that part of the golf layout was built on a former landfill site.
The club has recently received the designation “PGA National Italy” – becoming the only PGA-licensed golf facility in the country – and it will hold this title for the next ten years. The venue has also been chosen to host the next four annual editions of the SkyCaddie Pro-Captain Challenge, when ten regional qualifiers from the UK will fly in to compete for the first prize.
Just over an hour’s drive inland from Argentario, the course at Terme di Saturnia occupies a stunning site between Montemerano and Poggio Murella in the province of Grosseto, and hot sulphurous springs have been used in the spa town of Saturnia to recuperate the mind and body for many decades now.
Opened for play in 2007, the 18-hole layout is a Ron Fream design (from his days working all over the world with Golfplan) which was built to respect and safeguard local nature, securing Italian Golf Federation ecological certification in the process. This easy-walking terrain now teems with a wide variety of birds that are attracted to the man-made water features on the course.
The third and final Robert Trent Jones Jr. course on our trip was situated outside Rome at Terre dei Consoli, next to the small town of Monterosi. There are actually twenty-seven holes in play here, comprising the 18-hole Championship course and a 9-hole Family course. A brand new clubhouse is nearly finished and will soon be in operation.
Interestingly, the historical pilgrim route called the Via Francigena – which starts at Calais in France and ends in Rome – runs through the course, though numbers walking this road are far fewer than the many thousands who travel annually on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, so golfers should not expect to see too many backpackers on foot heading for St Peter’s Basilica when they play here.
It made sense to round off our visit to Italy by checking out the three top rated courses in our Central Italy rankings, starting at Golf Nazionale, which is located immediately to the north of the Terre dei Consoli property. Previously known as Le Querce Golf Club, it hosted the World Cup of Golf in 1991, only a year after the club was launched.
Ranked #3 regionally and #9 in the national listings, Golf Nazionale is a formidable 18-hole woodland track that’s laid out across a lovely rolling tract of land. It can be stretched to almost 6,500 metres from the back tees though it’s set in such an enormous property it could easily be extended further if required for big time competitions.
The West course at Olgiata Golf Club (ranked #2 regionally and #6 in Italy) is a 1960s production from the design studio of the English architect C. K. Cotton, who partnered Frank Penninck on many of the firm’s overseas projects. The layout has since undergone a new millennium makeover by Jim Fazio, with modifications made to fifteen holes.
The club hosted the World Amateur Team Championship (1964) and World Cup for professionals (1968) not long after it first opened and it has since held another World Cup in 1984, along with a couple of Italian Opens (1973 and 2002) and this important international event returns to Olgiata in October.
On the other side of the Eternal City, not far from Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, you’ll find the century-old course at Circolo del Golf Roma Acquasanta, founded in 1903 by British expatriate golfers. According to The World Atlas of Golf, this layout “is not only the oldest surviving golf course in Rome but also in Italy”.
Ranked #1 regionally and #5 in the country, Roma Acquasanta also entered our Continental Europe chart at #90 two years ago. When first founded, the course was on the outskirts of the city but now it is surrounded by suburbia on all sides, though a certain timeless aura still exists around the clubhouse, especially with old ruins like the Claudius aqueduct close by.
One that got away
Before heading back to the UK, we thought we had also managed to set up a visit to the Championship course at Marco Simone to see how things were shaping up with the renovation work that’s currently underway on the course at it prepares to host the 2022 Ryder Cup matches.
We had even lined up Dave Sampson from European Golf Design who’d agreed to show us around, as he would be there at that time. Alas, the rug was pulled from under our feet at the last minute so that particular site visit had to be hastily cancelled. Still, there’s always next year (or even the year after)…Jim McCann
Top 100 Golf Courses