GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy (AP) — An 11th-century castle. A grove of olive trees. The remains of an ancient Roman villa. Views of St. Peter’s Basilica on the horizon.
The terrain surrounding and comprising the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club on Rome’s outskirts that will host the 2023 Ryder Cup is quintessential Italy.
And no one knows that better than fashion designer Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna, who owns and runs the club.
Biagiotti Cigna also lives on the club grounds with her three dogs — in the castle, of course, which is situated between a bend in the course wedged between the sixth and eighth holes.
Astronomer Galileo Galilei once lived in the castle, too.
Biagiotti Cigna’s parents purchased the castle and its surrounding land in 1978 and decided to build a golf course.
“So this is a very special land that talks about history, that talks about innovation, it speaks about future,” Biagiotti Cigna said in an interview with The Associated Press.
It also speaks to the past: the Marco Simone castle (named for one of the first owners) is filled with 16th-century frescoes and has remains in its dungeon of prehistoric fossils that date back 300,000 years.
Adjacent to the 10th hole lies a first-century Roman villa that contains precious mosaics. Biagiotti Cigna is hoping to restore the villa in time for the Ryder Cup so that spectators can visit during breaks between the golf action.
Several other holes feature views of St. Peter’s, while the backdrop from the tee on the par-3 13th includes the characteristic hilltop town of Sant’Angelo Romano.
“There are so many secrets to discover about this place,” Biagiotti Cigna said.
The course itself contains secrets, too. They were discovered this weekend with the Italian Open being played at Marco Simone for the first time since 1994.
The hilly course looks nothing like it did when the European Tour last stopped here nearly three decades ago, though.
That’s because the ambitious plan to bring golf’s biggest event to Italy for the first time has involved a complete restyling.
Biagiotti Cigna, who runs the Laura Biagiotti fashion house named for her late mother, likened the overhaul to restyling an enormous “green skirt.”
“We turned the old golf course into something totally new,” she said from the first tee during the week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, standing in personally designed shoes featuring golf balls in the place of high heels.
“We had bulldozers here for 2½ years and we tried to reach excellence. This is what we want to offer to the world: a unique destination with amazing golfing features but not just that — with a typical Italian atmosphere, with culture, passion, food and friendship.”
The remake, at an estimated cost of 11 million euros ($13 million), was led by European Golf Design in collaboration with Tom Fazio, the son of the course’s original architect, Jim Fazio.
Located in Guidonia Montecelio along the Via Nomentana, an ancient Roman road, the course lies a half-hour drive from the center of Rome without traffic. During Rome’s notoriously packed rush hour, however, the drive could be a much longer slog in Ryder Cup week (Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2023) if local roads and transport are not improved.
Organizers are keen on taking advantage of an extra year of preparations after the event was pushed back from 2022 because of the pandemic.
“It’s the work that we always have to do,” said European Ryder Cup director Guy Kinnings. “And that’s a huge amount.”
Marco Simone will become the third venue in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup after Valderrama in Spain (1997) and Le Golf National in France (2018).
“You’ve got a wonderful design and you’re within 11 kilometers (seven miles) of the Eternal City — it’s a pretty potent mix,” Kinnings said. “Those two things together make for an extraordinary opportunity.”
Tommy Fleetwood, the English golfer who was an integral member of the Europe team that won the 2018 Ryder Cup, liked what he saw at first glance.
“There’s going to be some holes that are going to be a great arena, a great spectacle,” Fleetwood said. “There’s a lot of space for a big European crowd, which is what we want. And there’s definitely some good match-play holes out there.”
Biagiotti Cigna, whose fashion house is located in a building next to the castle, encourages golfing tourists to come play the course, which is open to the public year-round when not hosting major tournaments.
“While the designers were working on the course I always asked to add easy landing areas for amateurs,” she said. “I don’t want to be a course just for Ryder Cup. Of course it’s a very challenging course for (pro) golfers. But it’s a very fun course for amateurs.”
There’s plenty to see beyond the golf, too.