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Going In Style Been there, done that on the auld sod? Check out Lake Como, a sensuous mix of glamour and golf in the Italian Alps

July 29, 2002
July 29, 2002

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July 29, 2002

Golf Plus

Going In Style Been there, done that on the auld sod? Check out Lake Como, a sensuous mix of glamour and golf in the Italian Alps

For a certain strain of vagabond American the British Open is less
a tournament than an excuse for an overseas golf trip. These
world travelers keep track of their ports of call not with stamps
in a passport, but with logoed apparel. Last week at Muirfield
there were plenty of Yanks wearing items emblazoned with
BALLYBUNION or ROYAL COUNTY DOWN or TURNBERRY (and sometimes all
three). The more adventurous of the lot sported BALLYLIFFIN or
ROYAL DORNOCH or even MACHRIHANISH. Regardless of what corner of
the British Isles was being advertised, these wind-burned
Americans had taken a wrong turn somewhere over the Atlantic.
What they did not know is that the most unforgettable golf trip
in Europe is not to the linksland, but to Italy and the shores of
Lake Como, the famously glamorous outpost north of Milan, at the
foot of the Alps.

This is an article from the July 29, 2002 issue

Golf in the British Isles is like the ubiquitous wool sweaters
there--comfortable and familiar. The town of Como, hard by the
lake, is the silk capital of Europe, and the golf experience
there is like the local sport coats--stylish and exotic. Lake Como
is surrounded by five outstanding courses, a captivating mix of
graceful parkland layouts, vertiginous Alpine wonderlands and
championship bruisers. Nineteen Italian Opens have been played in
the area, a testament to the caliber of the courses, but what
makes a visit so memorable is not just the golf but also la dolce
vita.

"They approach life differently--their attitude, their demeanor,
their sense of style," says Greg Norman, who won the 1988 Italian
Open at Como's Golf Club Monticello, a Jim Fazio layout heavy on
water and sand and towering fir trees. Norman has returned to
Lake Como several times to vacation with his wife, Laura. "It's a
great place to get away from it all," he says. "You sit around,
drink wine, enjoy the great food and the great ambience, and
chill out."

Norman is hardly the first to fall under Lake Como's spell. In
The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal called the place an
"enchanting spot, unequaled on earth for loveliness." George
Lucas apparently agrees. When the Star Wars auteur needed a
setting of celestial beauty to serve as a backdrop for the love
scenes between Anakin Skywalker and Senator Padme Amidala in
Attack of the Clones, Lucas came to Lake Como. Likewise, when Las
Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn needed a name to convey
sophistication and glamour, he looked to the town of Bellagio,
which sits at the tip of the promontory that divides Lake Como
into two parts.

Perhaps it's no secret that the scenery is stunning and that
impossibly charming villages ring the lake like a glittering
necklace, but a tour of the area's golf courses illustrates so
much more about Italy, especially when compared with the default
overseas destination. Golf in the British Isles is largely
defined by what's not there--yardage markers, green grass, water
fountains, edible food, sunshine. At Lake Como all of the senses
are engaged, and the difference between the two experiences is
evident from the moment a player arrives at a course.

In the Isles you are greeted by an old man with gin blossoms on
his nose and single malt on his breath who will lecture you about
not wearing your cap in the clubhouse and harangue you about the
necessity of maintaining a three-hour pace. At Lake Como the pro
shop will more likely be manned by a Sophia Loren look-alike who
greets you in courtly English, bids you buona fortuna in
enchanting Italian and four hours later remembers your name and
asks, "How did you play?"

In the Isles your caddie sneers at your waggles, habitually tells
you to take "three extra clubs" (even if you're holding a
three-wood) and after the round drinks you into the poorhouse. At
Como the caddies teach you to swear in Italian and shout,
"Prego!" every time you make a putt.

In the Isles your clubhouse lunch is soggy toasties and warm
beer. At Como you get area wines, fresh mozzarella with
vine-ripened tomatoes, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, pasta to
make you weep, and all that is the warmup for your secondi
piatti.

In the Isles the bed-and-breakfasts smell like the 19th century,
and the proprietors look even more ancient. At Lake Como your
address is Villa d'Este, one of the world's grandest hotels.
Villa d'Este has roots in the 15th century and has hosted
everyone from Napoleon to Madonna. A swimming pool that juts
into the lake adorns innumerable postcards, but it is the
elegant gardens and overall serenity of the place that
encourages so many stolen kisses. Stendhal again: "Here
everything speaks of love." The Villa d'Este Golf Club is as
refined as the hotel, defined by tiny greens, artful bunkering
and sweeping doglegs set amid a forest of evergreens. On a
cloudy day the course feels like London's Wentworth, which makes
sense because Villa d'Este was designed by English architect
Peter Gannon. The course hosted the first of a dozen Italian
Opens in 1928, only two years after construction on the layout
began. (Among the winners there is five-time British Open champ
Peter Thomson, in 1959.) The last national championship hosted
by Villa d'Este was in 1972. At 6,296 yards the course is too
short for the modern pro game, but for recreational golfers it
remains one of Continental Europe's finest tests.

If Villa d'Este is Lake Como's most renowned course, Menaggio e
Cadenabbia Golf Club is the most fun. The road to the course is
like San Francisco's Lombard Street, only steeper and about five
miles longer. The perilous journey is a hint of the wild round
that awaits at the top of the hill. Menaggio features a series of
breathtaking elevation changes, blind tee shots, drivable par-4s
and endless mountain views. The course is Lake Como's answer to
Lahinch Golf Club, in County Clare, Ireland, only with a stone
halfway house featuring chilled white wine and Swiss chocolate,
among other goodies.

Monticello has less Old World charm than Villa d'Este or
Menaggio--Monticello's mod clubhouse has been likened to Miami's
Doral Resort and Spa--but it does boast two beautifully manicured
tracks: the 6,874-yard Red course has hosted seven Italian Opens,
while the Blue is more user-friendly (6,457 yards) but no less
memorable. Rounding out Lake Como's fab five is La Pinetina,
which caters to the beautiful people of Milan, the style capital
of Italy and, by extension, the world. No Dockers here. The
necessity of wearing one's nattiest golf togs seems to inspire a
more stylish brand of play, a phenomenon that Norman observed
during various Italian Opens. "The fans are always dressed so
nicely, wearing Gucci shoes and Armani jackets," he says. "It's a
totally different feel when you play in front of spectators like
that."

Or alongside them. Although all the courses around Lake Como are
private clubs, they welcome guests, and the members reflexively
go out of their way to make foreigners feel at home. At the
inevitable expression of the lake's beauty, the locals invariably
point out that Lago di Como is Europe's deepest lake (1,345
feet). There is an area expression that translates, roughly, as
"deep water makes lasting memories." Yes, Ireland has some pretty
sporty courses, and Scottish golf has a wee bit of history behind
it, but after one returns home from those places, it's tough to
remember more than a collage of shots. That is probably enough
for the logoed masses who play their way to the British Open
every year. For a more enduring experience they'll have to add
Lake Como to the itinerary.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER OLD FAVORITE Luscious Villa d'Este hosted the first of its 12 Italian Opens in 1928, soon after opening its course.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER HOT SPOTS Villa d'Este guests can hang by the pool or climb to the shops of nearby Bellagio. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER PEAK SEASON Villa d'Este may be better groomed (left), but the course at Menaggio e Cadenabbia has finer mountain views.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER HOMEY At Menaggio the greenkeeper (far left) and the pro live on-site. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER OLD WORLD CHARM Among the scenic delights of Lake Como are the gardens at Villa d'Este (right) and the waterfront of Bellagio.