Italy's allure can affect golfers' focus

Travel Weekly's Joe Manuelli counted too many strokes at several golf courses in Lombardy and Tuscany. His report follows:

NEW YORK -- A friend often complains that the problem with golf is that it has no defense.

In Italy, that certainly is not the case: There is an ongoing full-court press.

That is not to say the Italian courses are overflowing with fairway bunkers, sand traps, water hazards, doglegs, pitched greens and other maddening obstacles strategically placed to frustrate duffers.

It is simply that Italy has so much else to offer the vacationing golfer. Whether visitors are on an FIT or group tour, it is going to be a challenge to concentrate on the game considering that both Tuscany and Lombardy are well-known tourism centers offering a wide variety of pre- and post-golf amenities.

In these mountainous regions, many top courses are on former estates, often in rural locations far removed from the main highway. This means that extra time should be allowed for driving to golf dates. Some Lombardy courses in particular are close enough to the Dolomites and the southern Alps to make a golf-and-skiing itinerary possible.

Tuscany

This region offers 18 courses, with the majority located between Pisa and Florence. I played the lush Golf dell' Ugolino, about a 20-minute drive into the wine country south of Florence. This hilly course dates from 1933. It features natural obstacles and welcomes 2,000 international golfers annually.

In the past, the club has been the site of both the Italian Open and the Volvo Open. A real treat here is the clubhouse cuisine, which features several native Tuscan dishes and oil that is pressed from the olives grown alongside the fifth and sixth fairways.

A complete golf shop is on the premises, and visitors to Golf dell' Ugolino can also obtain privileges at a nearby tennis club that has well-maintained clay courts.

The Montecatini Golf Club is near its namesake resort town, which has been famous as a spa center since the late 1800s. Although the course is only 10 years old, it features a majestic setting with a stone clubhouse that once served as the local bishop's farm.

Montecatini is a windblown course with open vistas of the Tuscan landscape and some excellent views of neighboring large villas. From the tee at the second hole you can gaze upon the sleepy village of Vinci, where Leonardo was born.

The club has 300 members and hosts about 12,000 rounds of golf a year. It is located close enough to town that, with an early start, a visitor could complete 18 holes and still get in a spa treatment.

Both of these courses are on the Tuscan itinerary for California-based ITC Golf Tours, which can be reached at (800) 257-4981. Walk-up greens fees on weekdays average $56 at the Montecatini Golf Club and $62 at the Golf dell' Ugolino, but international visitors frequently receive discounts.

Lombardy

This district contains nearly half of the country's golfers and some of its best golf clubs. It boasts 31 courses clustered around Milan and throughout the Lake District.

The Golf Club Villa d'Este is at an elevation of 1,200 feet in the town of Brianza, just minutes from its famous, namesake resort on the shore of Lake Como. This course was the most elegant and best maintained that I played in Italy.

Golf Club Villa d'Este has plenty of bunkers and small fairway hills reminiscent of former grapevine terraces. Overall, this golf property had the most exclusive feeling. Some visitors might consider it "stuffy."

For 1999, Golf Club Villa d'Este will be one of five courses in Lombardy featured by Intergolf. The Atlanta-based tour operator provides self-drive products in its Italian market and can be reached at (800) 468-0051.

The newest Lombardy course also promises to be one of the best for the tourism trade. Palazzo Arzaga Golf Club opened in July of this year in the village by the same name. The 18-hole Jack Nicklaus II-designed resort course is situated on former vineyards surrounding the Castle Drugolo in the vicinity of Lake Garda.

In the spring of 1999 the property will debut an on-site hotel and spa. Arzaga will package commissionable golf and spa vacations, as well as tour products for the nearby Verona Arts Festival.

The Arzaga course features extremely deep-sided sand traps and wide, open fairways owing to the immaturity of the recently planted oak and robinia trees. Another trademark hazard is the copious tussock grass aligning the edges of many greens. (From experience, I know it can be really embarrassing to lose a ball just 40 yards from the hole.)

Resort owners are aiming to develop a leading golf school for PGA-caliber players.

Located within its high-tech fieldhouse classrooms are plenty of gee-whiz gadgets, including video monitoring systems to review that perfect golf swing.

A large driving range and practice green also are on site.

In the future, tougher holes -- such as a nine-hole Gary Player course -- will be installed. For post-golf activities, it is only a 90-minute drive from Arzaga to Venice. Arzaga is a member of Preferred Hotels, which can be contacted at (800) 323-7500.

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