Home » Feature Story

Lake Garda trying to build its golf tourism

Dave BowersBy Dave Bowers,

LAKE GARDA, Italy -- There is an old story told in the U.K. about a U.S. couple visiting Italy on holiday. It's probably apocryphal - though everyone claims to have overheard it first hand.

The gentleman was dressed in the manner of all American tourists to Europe - at least according to popular U.K. opinion: 4XL Hawaiian shirt, capacious shorts, with a large hat, the ubiquitous camera - or two - slung around his neck and a large cigar clamped between his teeth.

If he'd spoken he would surely have talked in a southern drawl. And if you can't picture it just think: sheriff, Live and Let Die.

Anyway, I digress. His wife, clad presumably in the female equivalent of the foregoing, with the addition no doubt of bright red lipstick, high heels and chewing gum, turned to her husband while on a visit to Rome and said: "Gee Bud, how quaint. They do pizza over here in litl' ‘ol Italy as well."

It is, of course, a terrible generalisation. Anybody with any sense realises that not all Americans are called Bud.

The reason I recount this tale is because while I was visiting Lake Garda I experienced a similarly disturbing example of crass stupidity which does little to enhance the European's view of America.

While families and young couples strolled along the promenade watching the cute ducklings following their mums around the myriad small, tethered craft, an American couple joined the enthralled viewers.

The female half was entranced; the male of the species said merely: "Gee I wish I had my shotgun!"

At that moment, so did a lot of other people.

The fact is not all Americans are slack-jawed, gun-toting yokels, any more than all Englishman are shaven-headed soccer hooligans wearing Union Flag shorts.

Which brings me, in a form that could certainly not be called a smooth segue, to golf - the ideal opportunity for Americans and Britons to visit Europe and demonstrate we don't fit the misinformed stereotype.

And the Italians actually want us to do so. The tourism authority in the region of Brescia is really keen to attract more golf tourists to the Garda area. Hotels are becoming more golfer friendly and golf courses have been designed - or re-designed -to cater for, particularly, the U.S. golfer.

With the exchange rate currently favouring the Euro, U.S. visitors would need to be reassured they would get their dollars' worth. And by and large they will be.

Garda is a magnificent area to stay. The scenery is stunning, the people friendly, the weather excellent and the food wonderful.

As for the golf, other than one or two moments of madness, the courses are enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing.

Admittedly the first hole at Franciacorta was poorly laid out - indeed it was described as "a Mickey Mouse hole" by a member of my fourball. But land was at a premium and architect Pete Dye redeemed himself later on with holes that appeared stunningly simple yet played way above such a standard.

The oldest course in the region is Bogliaco, built in 1912 in response to an upsurge in tourism. Set in the western hills of the lake at an altitude of 100 metres, it is the third oldest course in Italy and has a chequered history.

In 1928 the government decreed it should be converted to a wheat field. Then, during World War II it was used as a runway for aeroplanes by German troops and then, following the shift in the balance of power in the region, used as a baseball field by the Americans.

It wasn't until 1953 that it reverted to its original use as a golf course - yet until this year it comprised just nine holes. And you may not be too impressed with the first - but bear with it, for it gets much better.

As tourism increases, the club will undoubtedly expand its fleet of golf carts - and that will be a boon to those of us who are not in the peak of physical condition.

The course offers some spectacular views, but you often need to climb to see it from the tee. A buggy, therefore, is a definite for me should I return - and I have to say I hope too.

I visited just weeks before the scheduled opening of the second nine holes, and, if they are as good as the majority of the "front" nine it would be well worth the visit.

Bogliaco is idyllic, with fantastic scenery and smells amid the Mediterranean vegetation. I have to say it was one of the most pleasant spots in which I have ever played.

Only a fool would spare the Euros in completing the course. Gardagolf Country Club has twice hosted the Italian Open - and it's easy to see why. It is regarded as one of the best courses in the country, yet it is fewer than 20 years old.

Designed by Cotton, Penick, Steel & Partners, the course opened in 1986 and appears forgiving - but beware those wide fairways.

There is plenty of water on the course and some very testing longer holes.

A wild driver - such as yours truly - can find all sorts of trouble … and did. But it fails to dampen one's ardour for the venue.

It is a 27-hole complex, and once again the scenery can be quite marvellous - though not from where I was invariably taking my second shot.

Located a couple of miles from the lake, the course winds along the Valtenesi Hills - highly regarded for production of both red and white wines and olive oil.

Now then, the aforementioned Franciacorta. You might assume from the description of the first by one of my playing partners that I was not enamoured with the venue.

So let me put you straight on that. I enjoyed it. Apart from the ‘Mickey Mouse' first hole.

That 310m par four involved a 90 degree dog leg right along a lake, after a tee shot requiring little more than a wedge. The lake pulled in quite a few of us first-timers leading to a fair few chords of discontent.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a renowned UK course architect who had said: "I don't hold with ridiculously difficult opening holes. The first should be relatively straightforward.

"If you have a frustrating first hole it can ruin the next 17. It's not my job to ruin somebody's day out."

Those words always come back to me at a course which opens with a hugely long par 5 and a blind tee shot. Or a course with a 90 degree dog leg running alongside a capacious lake.

Water is present on eight of the holes - with two"island" greens - and even more if you play really badly. And it's not always the same water.

If you feel happy taking a wedge off the first tee then the remainder of the course certainly won't disappoint.

Palazzo Arzaga is the height of luxury with regard to the region's courses.

The 5-star hotel, spa and golf resort was originally a 15th century mansion. That was until Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player visited.

The first 18 was laid out by Jack Nicklaus II, who said: "One of the first and lasting impressions of the Arzaga project is the picturesque countryside, with its gentle rolling terrain tucked at the foothills of the Alps.

"The layout winds around several areas of native vegetation and a series of lakes that both complement the beauty of this property and create challenges for the golfer. The dawn and dusk shadowing of this course are spectacular."

To experience dawn and dusk would be pushing one's luck - though the heat would not be so intense.

Nicklaus' course is typical in its design, with wide fairways, large greenside bunkers, tempting water - courtesy of five artificial lakes - five tee positions and numerous pin placements.

And for mid to high handicappers - a category into which I'm happy to fall - one of the bonuses is you can see each fairway from the tee.

One English visitor walking off the course said: "I thought it was pretty decent if a bit open and ugly. The greens were terrific though. The Palazzo clubhouse is a lovely place to hang around though…"

Player's is described as a British-style course - but it falls short of having a bumptious ex-Major telling you to tuck your shirt in as you walk from car to locker room.

It has narrow fairways, elevated greens and ‘revetted' bunkers ‘reminiscent of great Scottish courses such as St Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie and Turnberry'. The words of the great Mr Player no less.

The Player course was extended to 18 holes in 1999 and unfortunately on the day I visited it wasn't in the best of condition.

The weather had not been kind and the fairways were very sandy as a result of recent aeration. Aesthetically, however, it was fine and it looked an excellent course when fully playable.

After all, Player wouldn't put his name to any old rubbish - would he?

And it's true, the clubhouse was a great place to eat, drink and unwind.

Overall, the region is an ideal place to visit for golf and sightseeing. Nowhere's perfect, but this is well up there.

And you don't have to take my word for it. In a recent Golf World column, Paul Mahoney admitted it was already one of his favourite golfing destinations.

Two British golf writers can't be wrong…

Off the course

Where do you start with regards to the history of the place? Brescia is the largest conurbation within easy reach and it's well worth a visit.

The Roman sites within the city are simply stunning, with a forum, a theatre and a temple all still standing in some part.

The City Museum is the renovated Santa Giulia monastery which features - as do many of the magnificent old structures of the region - many superb frescos.

And there are numerous other museums to visit.

The lake itself demands exploration and there are numerous boat trips available, wherever you choose to stay.

And if you're a wine connoisseur the Franciacorta Wine Route would be worth following. There are numerous vineyards and wineries offering guided tours and, most importantly, the opportunity to taste and purchase. Try berlucchifranciacorta.it

There is even a beauty parlour specialising in treatments with wine. I kid you not: franciacortabenessere.it

And visit Sirmione one evening to enjoy an al fresco dinner. Trust me, you won't be stuck for alternatives to golf. If you need further details contact the local tourist authority at bresciatourism.it

Places to stay

Make no bones about it, Garda is a tourist haven. Therefore, there is no shortage of hotels ranging from basic to high class.

Palazzo Arzaga (palazzoarzaga.com) has 84 rooms of its own if you want the upper end of the spectrum, but I stayed centrally in Salo, right on the lake at the pleasant, yet unspectacular Hotel Vigna (hotelvigna.it ).

It wasn't expensive, had a splendid outlook - 10 paces from the lake - and helpful English-speaking staff. It was also just a few minutes - that's a real 180-240 seconds, not a tourist brochure few minutes - from the town's many restaurants and bars.

Enjoy an ice-cold beer at midnight, in shirt sleeves, in the town square, and then stagger the 100 yards back to the hotel.

If that doesn't float your boat - and there are hundreds of boats to select from - there are plenty of other hotels in the region; try Sirmione for a picturesque alternative.

Places to eat

If there are plenty of hotels from which to choose, there are even more restaurants - and few will serve anything other than high-quality cuisine.

I can personally recommend the Hotel Duomo (hotelduomosalo.it) a few yards down the lakeside from the Hotel Vigna, and the Ristorante Osteria dell'Orologio in Salo (+39 0365 290158).

Further afield - and you will need to hire a car - try the Ristorante Agriturismo Riolet, on the Gardone Riviera (+39 0365 20545); the Trattoria GA Porteri, Via Trento, Brescia (+39 030 380947); and the wonderfully-situated Ristorante Grifone in Sirmione (+39 030 916097).

For lunch you need travel no further than any of the four golf clubs featured above. The food is superb at each and the outlook from the terraces and clubhouse takes some beating.

And I'm told you should always sample the local wine. I'm told so because I don't touch the stuff, but my travelling companions had no such qualm.

Course details

Gardagolf Country Club: gardagolf.it
Franciacorta Golf Club: franciacortagolfclub@libero.it
Circolo Golf Bogliaco: golfbogliaco.com
Palazzo Arzaga: palazzoarzaga.com

Dave lives on the south coast of England with partner Jackie and their three children. Originally a football writer in his homeland, he even rose to the giddy heights of public relations manager for an English professional Premiership side. But he'd been bitten by the golf bug and returned to his roots in journalism as executive editor for Golf Management Europe magazine and as a sports sub-editor/golf writer on one of the country's largest regional daily papers. Like all of us, he plays golf whenever he can - which isn't as often as he would like - and has even performed stand-up comedy in a top comedy club.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Very negative review

    DanielBarrett wrote on: May 6, 2017

    Dave Bowers is full of B.S. and has diarrhea of the mouth! There is no need for him to insult Americans when all he should be doing is reviewing the local golf courses. Contrary to what he may believe, his insults to any other nationality is indicative of a person of little intelligence. Quality humour does not rely on abusive language.


  • Feriebolig gardasøen

    Ferielejlighed gardasøen wrote on: Jul 18, 2010

    I just love the garda lake. Very nice place!
    /Ferielejlighed gardasøen