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Kyle Phillips's Verdura Resort in Sicily Will Appeal to Golfers, Aristocrats & Beach-loving Girlfriends
I knew I was in trouble when Britt saw the glossy photos of sun-drenched beaches, fragrant orchards, and Sicilian villas.
A Green at Verdura
"Sicily?" she asked, suddenly interested in the pictures on my writing desk. It was the new 45-hole Kyle Phillips-designed Verdura Golf and Spa Resort. She opened the brochure to a two-page spread of cliff-side green sites and an ultra-modern Sir Rocco Forte-owned luxury hotel overlooking a promontory on the Mediterranean. "This looks fantastic. But how are you reviewing a golf course you've never played in a country you've never visited?"
That's a good question. I'm not actually reviewing the golf course. I can't, I haven't played it. But I can report that Kyle Phillips - still rightfully in highest demand after his brilliant work at Kingsbarns - was recruited by Sir Rocco to build a Kingsbarns for him, this time in a much more hospitable climate, and that - should you find yourself in Sicily, you will be able to get to play great seaside golf at quite a fair price a la carte, and - apparently - there's a hell of a hotel there if you have cash to bleed.
More importantly, while chatting with Phillips about Verdura, I got him to open up about his ideas about golf design, golf travel, and the future of the golf industry in general. By creating a natural-looking landscape and incorporating the crucial ground-game elements of links golf, Phillips accomplished the impossible at Kingsbarns: He built an indisputable modern masterpiece in the shadow of hallowed St. Andrews. Now he's continuing to build a solid portfolio of high-end but rock-solid strategic designs across the globe using the same principles.
We can only hope we get to see him bring the same old-school golf design concepts to affordable public designs here in America soon and often.
Kyle Phillips in His Own Words
Apart from deep-pocketed and well-traveled ardent golfers, the rank-and-file American golfer may not have heard of Phillips, let alone played one of his designs. Most of his work is private, foreign, or both.
"I don't know where I belong in the world, I've been so many different places," laments Phillips. Although he has a mere handful of U.S. designs, Phillips has designed in such unlikely places as Austria, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Morocco, Sweden, the Netherlands, and United Arab Emirates to name just a few. And, of course, he has his magnum opus thus far in Kingsbarns.
Phillips, who for many years worked with Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and who also has The Grove in England and a celebrated restoration of the California Golf Club of San Francisco on his impressive resume, prefers design strategies and playing conditions like those found in the hallowed courses of the UK. These ideas formed the sturdy backbone of not only Kingsbarns, but Verdura as well.
"What have we done to golf in America?" he asks pointedly, referring to aerial, target-style courses in shoe-horned into real estate developments. "Playing golf in tight corridors around houses takes angles and options away from the game," he says. "We have taken golf design, made it like McDonalds: We've packaged it and sold it around the world at ridiculous prices. Now the world is choking on Big Macs. Instead, I like to have my courses look natural, I'm not going to take one style of course and drop it into another location.
"I like firm and fast conditions because they let a designer incorporate the ground game options," he continues. "I also like land forms extending away from greens." Sometimes, one of Phillips's greens will have one side extending into a flat area, so bogey golfers and amateurs have a bail-out, but the other side will have a fiendishly low chipping area or a bunker well below the level of the green, which makes for a tough up-and-down. "I strive for balance. World-class players will have a tough time getting close during tournaments and pay the price if they miss, but bogey golfers who'll play my courses year-round will have a fighting chance."
Phillips also likes to create illusions, called in design circles the "doctrine of deception."
"I like illusions to create intrigue and make the player think," Phillips says, referring to things like hidden swales, blind bunkers and hazards that look closer to the green than they actually are. "Moreover, angles off the tee and greenside contours create strategy and make a course more interesting. Strategy can emerge from the natural landforms and that's where the soul of golf dwells. When you play one of my courses, you're not just getting spoon-fed where to hit the ball, and you're not just getting one way to play the hole, but many, no matter what level of player you are. You have to think."
Phillips raises an interesting point. Two players that are scratch will have different lengths and different strengths, so they might play the same hole completely differently. It's only fair to give them both options.
Finally, while he embraces "minimalism" - the architectural school which moves as little earth on a site as possible to both reflect the natural forms of the property and save significantly on construction costs - he refines it pragmatically. He felt that minimalism - at times merely "stick a stake in the ground for a tee, stick a stake in the ground for a green, carve bunkers, and you're done" - works best on a site blessed with varied and striking natural landforms.
However, Phillips feels that subtle and well-planned enhancements to the less interesting portions of the property should not be dismissed out-of-hand. There's nothing wrong with moving a little earth - a little mind you - to make a flat, unvaried parcel of land more interesting. Phillips describes the concept as "naturalism."
"Naturalism uses existing natural landforms, but also - where the landforms might be devoid of character - allows for a natural-looking shaping to be created, and then the holes to be overlaid this new, but natural-looking and -feeling landscape," he explains. "The end result still looks and plays like what naturally was there, but we were able to make it more interesting - and most importantly strategic - than what was previously there."
Verdura, Sicily & Sir Rocco
At first blush, Verdura doesn't seem like a place that I'd write about or visit. My raison d'etre as a golf-travel writer is to highlight affordable golf destinations, especially ergonomic trips where golfers can sample several different great courses in one region.
Instead, a cursory glance at the website and literature for Verdura Golf and Spa resort reveals a place completely at odds with that imperative: An expensive resort well off the beaten golf path catering to a "Who's Who" clientele that's also trying to lure a major event, in this case the Ryder Cup.
Besides, I always get leery when "spa" is in the name for a resort.
Questions leapt to mind: Why would we need to go to Sicily to play seaside golf? What sets Verdura apart from every other opulent resort with a golf course? If I miss playing this course, what important legacy to the world of golf will I miss?
The answer is different for Americans and Europeans. The latter could make Verdura a staple of the European jet-set rotation. It makes sense: Costa del Sol and the south of France, then Sicily-Corsica-Sardinia, before continuing north to Italy and on to Greece, or south through Monaco and on to other exotic destinations such as Marrakesh, Essaouira, or the Canary Islands.
However, most Americans don't have Sicily high on the travel list, not with Rome, Paris, London, Greece and Egypt as priorities, to name a few. It may draw some Italian-Americans, but it will need the cachet of a Ryder Cup to draw the attention of America's mainstream golf traveler. They'll first go to Ireland, England, Scotland and even Northern Ireland before hitting the sunnier spots like Verdura and Spain.
Still, Sir Rocco's sense of taste, class and quality in golf design led him to make the wise choice of Phillips as designer of his courses, instead of a big-name "signature" designer. That's the competitive advantage Verdura will have, despite its out-of-the-way location and high price tag for accommodations.
"It's a Sicilian links. We wanted to bring links golf to this climate," says Phillips. "There are great golf holes and some cool features, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts here. It's breezy, but not windy: Think the east of Scotland, not the west. Like Kingsbarns, there's fantastic views everywhere. The inland holes all have panoramic views of the sea."
There are blind bunkers, blind swales and other surprises that you'll find at Phillips's beloved U.K courses, the strategies of which he deftly uses as a springboard for his own work. One highlight is at East's sixth hole, a par-3 where a blind swale guards the front of the green.
Moreover, both Phillips and Sir Rocco think the seclusion is a draw. "No place else in Europe has 45 holes (an East and West Course and a nine-hole short course) of superb seaside golf in a warm climate that's not dominated by residential projects in high density areas," Phillips explains. "It's different from the Costa del Sol. It's a dream destination on the water that is not in a housing development - Verdura has 570 acres and only electric vehicles. It's the same low-impact environment of other great seaside resorts, but without a crammed tee sheet and a ton of people. The seclusion is charming."
The low season is December to April and the high season is May to November. The golf rates for both seasons are $135.14 for 18 holes and $202.71 for 36 holes. However, that's the other problem: that's just for golf. Lodging is pricey, sometimes reaching $745 a night in high season, perhaps as low as $200 in "shoulder" seasons for "bed and breakfast" accommodations. There is a "spring offer" of $448 for unlimited golf, dinner each night, and use of resort amenities, but that's still high, especially compared to the U.K., Ireland, and some U.S. resorts. Additionally, it's 70 minutes from Palermo's airport and nowhere near the only other tourist draw in Sicily; Mt. Etna is on the other side of the island.
Even with Phillips, it may need a Ryder Cup to draw American tourists. Verdura could be a runaway success if that happens, or we could see the outer limit of "If you build it they will come." The idea of a St. Andrews or Ballybunion or Royal County Down in 80-degree weather may be appealing and sell well, or people may still make the Auld Sod their top priority. After all, golf is a game of tradition and it takes time to build a sterling reputation, so the U.K will probably remain America's favorite foreign golf destination for the time being.
Unless, of course, you are a travel-happy, modern hotel-loving, beachcomber, like Britt is. Secluded beach? Pampering? Mediterranean sunshine all day? Count her in! She gave me her most imperious stare, a look that said, "If you know what's good for you, we'll go here" look. In those eyes I could see she was halfway there already.
Well, sorry, Britt. I'm putting my foot down. We're NOT going to Sicily. It's MY turn to pick where we're going on vacation next . . . and it just so happens BOTH Sir Rocco AND Kyle Phillips have new hotels and courses opening in Marrakesh. How does Morocco grab you?
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.