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Ryder Cup 2023

Ryder Cup 2023: Italy is not a golf-hungry country, but there's hope the Cup will change that

September 28, 2023
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A view of the huge first-tee grandstands at Marco Simone.

Ramsey Cardy

ROME — In Italy, there are 150 golf courses with at least 18 holes. Some are beauties, like Franciacorta Golf Club in the sparkling wine hills east of Milan, or Golf Des Iles Borromées, which has views across Lake Maggiore to the Simplon Alps and Switzerland. But the entire country has only 10 more golf courses than the total in Los Angeles County, where Italy’s greatest ever golfer, Francesco Molinari, now lives.

The former Open champion, who hails from Turin in the north but lives in L.A. and is a member at Riviera Country Club, knows Italy’s golf landscape has a long way to go. According to a 2021 report commissioned by the R&A and the European Golf Association, Italy has about 87,000 registered golfers and about 430,000 total including casual players.

It’s why he’s hoping the first Ryder Cup ever held in Italy kicks off a long-term golf participation and tourism boom that even his sensational 2018 season did not. That year, Molinari won the Open Championship at Carnoustie, the DP World Tour’s BMW PGA at Wentworth, and the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans—all before the Ryder Cup in Paris, where he became the first European to go 5–0–0. He also won the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

“I think we have plenty of courses; the goal will be participation,” Molinari, one of European captain Luke Donald’s assistants, told Golf Digest at Marco Simone, where the Ryder Cup beings on Friday. “Participation, as in, on the course. You want to have as many kids fall in love with the Ryde Cup and with the game like I did, like a lot of guys on the team did, when they were younger.

“And then also participation in terms of watching golf and getting more interest into the sport. It’s not really one of the top sports in Italy. There's football, then tennis, basketball, a few more team sports and then golf sits with a bunch of other sports.”

Gulio Nuccio, an Italian fan in the crowd who now lives in England, travelled to Rome to watch the biennial competition. He believes it will be difficult for one Ryder Cup to alter the socioeconomic balance of golf in Italy. In the south, golf is not popular at all. But in the north, where major cities Rome, Turin, Milan, Venice and Florence offer more wealth, opportunities and, therefore, far more golf courses, Guccio believes the game will grow.

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Italian golf fan Gulio Nuccio traveled from his home in London to attend the Ryder Cup. (Evin Priest/Golf Digest)

“My family's from Puglia,” Nuccio says of the southern region which sits at the heel of Italy’s “boot.” “There's [very little] golf there. I’m not sure many people there would know the Ryder Cup is.”

There are just five 18-hole golf courses in the southern regions of Italy: three in Puglia, one on Campania and one in Basilicata. The majority of courses are in the mid and northern regions, like Lazio (11 courses), where Rome is located, as well as Veneto (18), Emiliana Romagna (14), Toscana (12) Piemonte (18) and Lombardia (28).

“I think for the north, it's going to do wonders, because [the Ryder Cup] is [arguably] the biggest golf event in the world and golf is a very inclusive sport,” Nuccio says. “It's something that everyone can enjoy. I think it will also do wonders for tourism. It will put Marco Simone on the map. In Italy, I don’t think most people could name one [course], but now they will be able to.”

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Map courtesy of Italy Golf & More

At least U.S. team member Patrick Cantlay can now name one course here, as he joked about while praising Marco Simone in his pre-tournament press conference. "It's definitely the best course I've ever played in Italy, hands down,” Cantlay said. “It's in really good shape. The greens are really good."

Asked how many courses he’d played in Italy, the World No. 5 said to laughter: "Just the one.”

Molinari does feel Marco Simone can be a brand-name course for Italy. The Rome area course has hosted the DP World Tour’s Italian Open since 2021. “Purely because of the publicity you get from the Ryder Cup; I think a lot of people watching will recognize the holes and they’ll want to come and play it,” Molinari says. “It's up to the owner of the golf club and the Federation [of Golf Italy, known as FIG] to keep it in good shape and in to make it something special; an experience for people visiting. If you think about all the tourists in Rome, they don't really think come here to play golf. Hopefully, that will change, at least partially, after this week.”

Italy’s golfing organizations are at least trying to capitalize on the momentum at Marco Simone. In the fan village, there are two stalls: one specifically about the 2023 Ryder Cup in Italy, while next door is a stall titled “Italy Golf & More”. The latter has a simulator and staff offering advice on how to access golf, as well as a provincial map of courses in Italy that was wildly helpful to this story [picture below].

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Francesco Molinari is considered Italy's greatest golfer.

FRANCK FIFE

Despite the modest number of golf courses—and a short golf season in the far colder northern regions—the nation has produced plenty of professional golfers. Molinari’s older brother, Edoardo, has won three times on the DP World Tour, played the 2010 Ryder Cup and is also one of Donald’s assistants this week. The statistics guru has launched a data metrics program for golf used by pros like FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland.

Constantino Rocca, now 66, is considered one of the greatest ever Italian players with five European Tour wins. He’s famous for losing to John Daly in a playoff at St. Andrews in the 1995 Open, while he also tied fifth at the 1997 Masters. There are current tour pros such as Guido Migliozzi, Andrea Pavan and Matteo Manassero. But Francesco Molinari is unequivocally the greatest; the only Italian to have won a major.

He can’t predict whether hosting a Ryder Cup can improve the already impressive list of professional players. What he does hope for, and what he thinks as achievable, is to at least boost the profile of golf in a soccer-loving nation. He says Europe winning a thrilling Cup in Rome will do wonders, even if there isn’t an Italian on this team.

“I don't have the crystal ball, but I do hope the younger generations can see the European team, having a great week and get behind the Ryder Cup and get behind the sport in general,” he said. “That's all the Ryder Cup can do and then it's up to the federation and politicians here in Italy to use that momentum as much as possible.”

European team members are at least going to try. Tommy Fleetwood is one of Molinari’s closest friends. They were affectionately nicknamed “Moliwood” in 2018, when as a pairing they went 4-0-0 in Paris. Fleetwood says the thought of giving his pal, and brother Edoardo, a European victory in Italy was personal motivation.

“I think that would be great for Fran and Edoardo,” Fleetwood said. “What a special time for their country to have the two brothers time [as captain’s assistants] who have been the face of Italian golf for a long time. On a personal level, I'm still so close to Fran. He's played a huge part in [my Ryder Cup journey] so far.

“I'm always a big supporter in golf in all of the European countries, and Italy, I have great memories of Italy playing in junior golf and amateur golf, and the Italian Open on the European Tour, The Italian Open has always been such a cool event for us. Being able to bring the Ryder Cup here, have it showcase the game and the country and the city for this one week, hopefully will play a huge part in the game continuing to grow for Italy.”

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