Rome will welcome the golf world's greatest team event, the Ryder Cup, for the first time as Italy begins to embrace the sport.
While Rome may be used to the glitz and glamour of major sporting events, it is now preparing for the first time to welcome golf's greatest team event, the men's Ryder Cup, which is played bi-annually between Europe and the United States and switches hosting duties between the two.
In September 2022 Rome will become the first Italian city to host the Ryder Cup, whose leading names are expected to attract fans from across the globe. Work has already begun at the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Guidonia Montecelio, north-east of the capital, to ensure the facilities can cope with the clamour for tickets, the demands of an international television audience and the special assistance required by the world’s best players.
However, while the likes of multi-major winners Tiger Woods, Jordan Speith and Rory McIlroy will attract the attention of many, most eyes will focus on the home hero Francesco Molinari and his fruitful partnership with England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
The pair claimed nine points between them in last year’s win for Europe in Paris, and their partnership coined the now famous Moliwood tagline as supporters from across the continent revelled in their performances.
Molinari, who won all five of his matches at Le Club National in Paris, will be the poster-boy of the competition. The 36-year-old became the first Italian to win one of golf’s four majors last year when he won the British Open Championship. He also capped a dream 2018 by being crowned the Race to Dubai champion after adding the BMW PGA Championship, his sixth win on the European Tour, and the Quicken Loans National, his first on America’s PGA Tour, to his trophy cabinet.
The Italian will still need to qualify for selection to the Ryder Cup but, following his performance last year, it would be inconceivable for the captain not to find him a place in the line-up as a wildcard at the very least.
Indeed, the name Molinari could feature twice on the leaderboard at Marco Simone should Francesco’s brother Edoardo show his highly capable form and earn selection for the second time following his debut in 2010. Although, given the apparent “bromance” between Molinari and Fleetwood, Europe would hope that three was not a crowd.
Golf has yet to find its place in mainstream Italian sport, and according to the Italian National Olympic Committee it does not even feature in the ten most popular participation sports in the country.
The number of registered golfers in Italy dropped from 100,000 to 90,000 between 2010 and 2017, and 90,000 is incredibly low compared to other elite sporting nations in Europe. England has 640,000, Germany 625,000 and France 410,000. Italy is 13th on the list of participation in Europe, with the highest ratio of population to golf course (217,037 to every course) in the top 20 nations.
Golf in Italy
Golf has long been seen as an exclusive luxury in Italy, with just 275 courses across the country – 15 per cent of the number in England, 30 per cent of Germany and half the number in Scotland. Italy’s participation rate in the sport is also the lowest of the top 20 European nations, with only 0.15 per cent of the population playing the game. This trend is reflected in Rome's limited number of golf courses, all of which are exclusive.
Despite golf's lack of broad popular appeal in Italy, the success of the Molinari brothers has meant more than simply hosting the Italian Open once a year. The growth of the game, and the publicity surrounding the Ryder Cup, has been noted by the pair.
“People realise how big the Ryder Cup is, especially for a small golfing country like Italy,” said Edoardo. “There’s been a lot of news in the media, a lot of people are talking about it. I think it’s going to be a unique Ryder Cup because the Italian people are very passionate about any sport and I think when it comes to golf, you will see support that has been unheard of and something that’s never been done before.
“If you look at the Italian Open, where it was five or six years ago to where it is now, it’s just a completely different event. Hopefully we can keep going for a few more years, hopefully more and more players will come and play and just raise the awareness for golf and Italian golf.”
Francesco added: “I remember when I was a teenager things were very different, it was almost impossible to watch golf on TV. It’s a nation crazy about sports in general, motor racing and many other things, and I think golf is becoming part of it.
“We’ve got some unbelievable places, some really good golf courses that are probably not as well known in the world as they should be. They’re doing great with the Italian Open, hopefully it will boost golf tourism in Italy as well.”
Rome won’t need to look far for inspiration. The Ryder Cup in Paris was an overwhelming success, with huge crowds cheering the success of the home players. More than 60,000 people descended on the French capital to watch the competition unfold, with an American contingent making up around seven per cent of the total. It was reported that up to 25,000 spectators had travelled from the UK alone.
Of course, large numbers provide their own challenges, but the French course adopted the tightest security measures seen since 2002 at The Belfry in England, with over 9km of fencing and 16.5km of crowd-control barriers in operation.
Marco Simone club
The transformation of the Marco Simone club will take similar shape. Construction began in summer last year with architects, engineers and agronomists starting work on the first phase of the project, which will see the erection of a state-of-the-art venue.
The Rome site, controlled by the Biagiotti family of fashion-house fame, will undergo a complete overhaul over the next three and a half years. An entirely new golf course will be in place to stage the event, co-designed by Tom Fazio II (the son of the original architect at the club) and the European Golf Design company.
The standards of the Ryder Cup have placed demands on the course to produce new roads, lakes, cart paths and irrigation systems in the design as well as accommodation and hospitality suites – all which will transform the course into one of Europe’s premier complexes.
The course took shape originally in the 1980s when fashion designer and entrepreneur Laura Biagiotti started a project to transform 150 hectares of Roman countryside, 16 km from central Rome. She also created 27 supreme golf holes surrounding the Marco Simone castle, which dates back to 1,000 AD. The present transformation project has been divided into four phases, with the golf course scheduled to be finished in the spring of 2020.
Despite the ongoing construction, members of the club will still be able to play 18 holes at the course throughout the works. Describing the upcoming event as “epic”, Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna, president of Marco Simone Golf & Country Club said: “We are working to build a strong legacy for the next generation of golfers”, adding that the Ryder Cup represents “a unique opportunity for Rome and Italy.”
The Italian Open, which was first staged at the course in 1994, will then head to Rome in 2021 as a precursor to the Ryder Cup the following September. The 43rd edition will be held at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin in America from 25-27 September 2020.
The US holds the better record in the competition, which started in 1927, with 26 victories compared to Europe’s 14. In the current version, each team has 12 players with fourballs and foursomes taking place on the opening two days before a thrilling final day of singles matches decides whether the Trophy goes to Europe or the USA.
Giovanni Malagò, president of the Italian National Olympic Committee, said: “The Ryder Cup represents golf’s history, tradition and charm, and I am sure it will be a great success for all the golf movement and for Italy.”
By Ed White
This article was published in the January 2019 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, Via di Marco Simone 84-88, 00012 Guidonia, tel. 0774366469, website.
For details about golf courses in Rome see websit.