Forte prepares to open 45-hole Italian resort

No. 6 on the East Course at Verdura Golf & Spa Resort.

No. 6 on the East Course at Verdura Golf & Spa Resort.

When Americans contemplate a golf trip to Europe, the default choices are either Scotland or Ireland. And why not? Whether it’s a buddies trip or a couples getaway, one could hardly go wrong in either destination.

But perhaps the most interesting development this year in European golf is taking shape on the southern tip of Italy, where Verdura Golf & Spa Resort (www.verduraresort.com) is scheduled to open March 1 in Sicily. The resort sits on 570 acres, with 1.2 miles of private Mediterranean coastline, and has 45 holes of golf – two regulation 18s and a nine-hole par 3 course.

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The Presidential Suite at Verdura Golf & Spa Resort.

The man behind Verdura is Sir Rocco Forte, whose eponymous Rocco Forte Collection operates some of Europe’s most acclaimed hotels. Sir Rocco, who turns 65 years old Jan. 18, grew up in the hotel business and in 1982 became CEO of Forte Group plc, the conglomerate built by his father, Lord Charles Forte. The company owned hotels, restaurants, a winery and even highway service areas. But in 1996, the Forte family lost control of the company to Granada plc in a £3.9 billion hostile takeover.

The Forte family walked away with £325 million, and Sir Rocco used the money to begin building a new chain of decidedly upscale hotels. The Rocco Forte Collection now operates 13 properties, with four more in development. Sir Rocco recently received Hotels Magazine’s 2009 Corporate Hotelier of the World award.

Verdura is the first golf resort developed by Sir Rocco, who is described as an avid golfer, but is better known as a competitive triathlete who has represented Great Britain in the World Triathlon Championships. He approached California-based course architect Kyle Phillips eight years ago about taking on the project. Phillips said that his design of Kingsbarns, ranked No. 1 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses of Great Britain & Ireland, apparently had caught Forte’s eye.

In a phone interview, Phillips said Verdura’s East and West courses have a similar architectural style. Both courses, for instance, have seaside holes and similar green complexes.

“One of the mistakes that people make with sites like this is they build a seaside course and then they build an inland course,” he said.

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Phillips said that the sea is visible even from the most inland holes, and his routings allow for the two courses to be combined to form a tournament course that incorporates all of the resort’s seaside holes.

Sir Rocco has established a reputation for operating five-star hotels, each with a distinct style that fits into its surroundings rather than having a cookie-cutter feel, an approach that appealed to Phillips.

“What he’s trying to do in the hotel world is what I’m trying to do in golf,” the architect said.

The resort’s director of golf is Niall Cameron, who played on the European Tour in the early 1980s and previously worked at clubs such as Royal St. George’s and Turnberry. Cameron also designed the course at Assoufid, a Forte Collection resort that’s under development in Marrakech.

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