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The Sweet Life

Take a peek into the golf developments in Tuscany that have added to the numerous reasons for visiting one of the most historic, scenic and alluring destinations in the world

By: Larry Olmsted

Tuscany is centuries-old villas with flower gardens. Tuscany is olive groves and vineyards. Tuscany is the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Michelangelo’s David. Tuscany is fine cheeses, rare white truffles and famous wine like Chianti.

Tuscany is the good life: art, architecture, culture, history, cuisine, viticulture, leisure, scenery. It is a romanticized locale of film, literature, legend and word of mouth. And it is one of the few places  in the world that truly live up to their very lofty expectations.

Tuscany is many things, one of the must-visit spots in the world. But it hasn’t been a golf destination—until recently.

Now, in between the trips to the museums, wineries and medieval villages, visitors can tee it up on some of the most distinct, most beautiful countryside in Europe. And with the addition of golf in the country that invented la dolce vita (the sweet life), the experience under the Tuscan sun is just getting sweeter.

The recent Tuscan golf boom can be traced to the Poggio dei Medici Golf Club, built in 1992 and home for many years to the Italian Ladies Open. It anchors Tuscany’s first destination golf resort, with an upscale hotel managed by Italy’s UNA chain.

The routing is expansive, and the holes wander over hilly terrain, separated by stands of cypress trees, with many approach shots framed by distant mountain peaks. Located less than 20 miles north of Florence, Poggio dei Medici is convenient to the city that was the cradle of the Renaissance and inspired notables from Da Vinci to Dante.

Florence is the region’s gateway, home to art, restaurants, a renowned leather market and the revered goldsmiths of the Ponte Vecchio. The city’s best lodging choice depends on where you want to stay. If you want to look out over the city, head for the Villa San Michele in the suburb of Fiesold. The former monastery from the 15th century features original Michelangelo friezes on its walls.

Inside the city, the new Four Seasons Firenze is an urban oasis with acres of walled gardens. The property offers the same sense of serenity and seclusion as it did when it was a private Renaissance palace.

Four Seasons has another Italian resort under hush-hush development, still a few years off, just over the border in the neighboring region of Umbria, frequently touted as the “next Tuscany.” But many visitors take in both areas, which are already practically indistinguishable in terms of the sweet life.

But you don’t have to wait to play the upcoming resort’s golf course, which is surprisingly good. Antognolla is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that opened in 1997. It has changed ownership several times since, and now is in the hands of Alessio Tettamanti, who bought the Antognolla Estate three years ago. The land had been in his family for generations before his grandfather sold it in the 1920s, so Tettamanti feels a spiritual connection to the property.

The course is routed through a narrow valley with a prominent saddle in the center. It has the potential to be a true anchor for a golf resort, which is Tettamanti’s goal. In addition to the partnership with Four Seasons, Tettamanti has grand visions for Antognolla. He is renovating a castle overlooking the course to contain 16 suites, wine bar, restaurants and common areas inside the thousand-year-old interior. (The central tower dates to the sixth century.) Until he fulfills his vision, guests can rent villas through the estate.

From inland, head west to the Maremma, which is a less-developed coastal area known for its rugged, rural character. There’s nothing rugged about Terme di Saturnia Golf Club or its eponymous spa resort. While the resort has long been one of Europe’s top spas, the course is the newest addition to the area’s golf scene.

Designed by Ron Fream’s Golfplan, Saturnia is the California-based company’s first course in Italy. And in typical Italian fashion, the course took a leisurely five years to complete. But the long time window had nothing to do with the slower lifestyle. The project was delayed by the unearthing of endless ancient artifacts from underground hot springs that feed the terme, thermal baths that are filled with water that has flowed out of the ground at exactly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for centuries.

These waters are a welcome salve after playing the course that occupies rolling fields on the valley floor, ringed with jagged peaks and olive groves, fairways separated by thick native grasses, all overlooked by the medieval hilltop town of Saturnia. (It seems to be a rule in Italy that you cannot have a golf course without a view of an ancient castle or church.)
In a country where any structure built since the 16th century is considered modern, a typically Italian touch is the “temporary” clubhouse, housed in a stone manse, the local version of our doublewide trailers.

The remainder of Tuscany’s courses is spread around, ensuring a wondrous sightseeing experience as golfers travel from tee to tee. The highlights include Montecatini Golf Club and Le Pavoniere, designed by Arnold Palmer. While the former is scenic, the latter is the best of the rest, despite occupying perhaps the only flat spot in Tuscany. Le Pavoniere’s charm largely consists of its wide variety of water and sand hazards. 

In the heart of Chianti country sits the oldest golf course in Italy—sort of. Golf dell’ Ugolino was originally the Florence Golf Club, founded in 1889 and host of Italy’s first national championship in 1905. But when growing Florence needed an airport, the club was relocated to its present location in 1933.

The heavily wooded layout is perhaps the hilliest in Tuscany, so it really helps to play with a member, who can guide guests and help them understand where to land tee shots.
Thankfully, the club’s community is warm and welcoming—the way all of Italy is, on and off the course.

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