Can Golf Save Italy?

I was intrigued by a Bloomberg report published earlier this year. In it, a starry-eyed Italian developer, having studied Italy’s plan to cut over 21 billion euros in spending to bring its budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP, claimed that golf—not football or pasta or la dolce vita—offered a path to fiscal salvation.

Ordinarily, I would dismiss such balderdash, given the deflated state of the golf development industry in Europe and elsewhere. But the guy’s name is Leonardo—Leonardo Caltagirone—so I thought I’d read on. The chairman of a construction and property company in Rome, the ebullient 63-year-old Caltagirone is spending 200 million euros to build a 27-hole residential golf resort in a valley outside the city where legions of Roman soldiers once camped before marching into the streets with the spoils of war.

Despite the fact that Italy is mired in a two-year recession, despite the fact that it had incurred debt totaling over 1.5 trillion euros by the end of 2009, Caltagirone, against all odds, remains optimistic that Terre dei Consoli will be hailed as “one of the greatest golf courses in the world” when it debuts in 2012.

The developer has hired Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to design a massive 18-hole championship-caliber course that will stretch to 7,700 yards; and a nine-hole executive course. A golf academy and practice range with target greens are also in the works, as is a full-service clubhouse with terraced dining areas overlooking the golf facility. Designed with nature lovers in mind, all common areas within the community’s residential sectors will be pedestrian-only.

The project looks great on paper, but the nation’s golf participation rate has yet to be properly assessed by Leonardo or anyone else. At present, Italy counts roughly 92,000 golfers, compared to nearly 390,000 players in France and almost two million in the U.K. More alarmingly, a recent KPMG report indicates that Italy is not exactly a country that golfers worldwide associate with the ancient Scottish game.

On the other hand, look at the kind of year Italy’s top golfers enjoyed. Following their victory at the 2009 World Cup in China, brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari both claimed multiple victories on the European Tour in 2010, capped by their gutsy performances at the Ryder Cup matches in Wales. Both brothers are currently ranked among the top 20 players in the world.

The Molinari brothers can do wonders to boost golf in Italy

There’s more. Matteo Manassero, the 17-year-old phenom who won the 2009 British Amateur and turned pro after the Masters earlier this year, recently triumphed at the Andalucian Open and has already amassed over $1 million in winnings. Perhaps not since the emergence of the teen-aged Seve Ballesteros in the mid-1970s has the Continent produced a younger champion with more star potential.

If it follows that charismatic champions are required to spur popular interest in a sport, perhaps this talented threesome can convince Italians to take up a game long viewed as an elitist diversion. (On the plus side, the golf togs for both sexes are far better than they were in years past–Italians are the ultimate fashion hounds). But is there something more compelling to attract them?

Luca Valerio, a golf industry consultant to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, believes golf is a “social event” for Italians” and, presumably, should be promoted as such. But he also feels that golf’s future is tied to real estate, and we all know how that unholy alliance has played out across the Sun Belt.

Valerio is undaunted. “Italy was once the world’s No. 1 tourist destination,” he said. “New courses like Terre dei Consoli will help us regain that title.” He and Caltagirone wholeheartedly believe that golf has the potential to be the fastest growth sport in Italy. Yes, Italy has the weather, the food and the off-course attractions to bring in avid players and their families. Perhaps only the shortage of top-class courses is stopping them. Certainly the appeal of living within a secure golf community a short drive from the Eternal City is self-evident. Still, Leonardo is rolling a big pair of dice.

While the nation is known for the huge rolls of red tape it winds around new developments, there are indications that the government is committed to speeding up the convoluted permit process required to build new golf courses (or new anything) in Italy. At present, Valerio concedes that fewer than 70 Italian courses can command the attention of upscale travelers, prospective buyers, corporate sponsors and professional tournaments.  More top-flight courses as well as grassroots programs that make the game more accessible to a broader slice of society will be needed to raise Italy’s golf stature.

For his part, Caltagirone says Terre dei Consoli will create jobs and attract well-heeled travelers and investors. In addition to the 27-hole golf course, the project’s second phase will have 500 villas, a 120-room hotel and a luxury golf lodge with capacity for 60 guests. House prices will range from 240,000 euros to 500,000 euros. According to the Bloomberg report, these houses “are primarily aimed at Italian home buyers and northern Europeans seeking a warm winter golf hideaway.” Americans, who have an ongoing love affair with all things Italian, will also be targeted.

But there is competition galore throughout the Mediterranean region. Spain has dozens of residential golf developments that have underperformed due to a weakened global economy and an oversupply in the market. The Belek area on the southern coast of Turkey near Antalya has an inventory of nearly 20 courses specifically built to lure sun-starved Europeans. Even Greece and Crete and building courses to attract golf travelers.

Ah, but Italy, alone among the world’s destinations, is a place that has mastered the art of living. Everyone else is in dress rehearsal. Caltagirone’s dream project is simply icing on the panettone. Check a few of the entries listed under, “Your life in Terre dei Consoli means…”

  • Live forever inside a manicured garden
  • Live in a beautiful home in the green countryside of Rome
  • Reach the tee of hole number one in less than 10 minutes
  • Wake up breathing fresh air
  • Live your life finally free from automobiles
  • Have a different barbecue each evening

Maybe Leonardo is onto something after all.


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