“Golf is not Italian,” they said. “We have no golf culture.” That was the reaction from friends when I briefly took up what I had always thought the most boring sport in the world.
To me it had always been a time-killer for rich oldies with aching bones. But my dad’s best friend was a fan, and bragged about his skills. So a few years ago I decided to give it a go and took a few lessons at a golf course near my house, in Rome’s lush countryside.
It was tougher than I’d expected. You burn hundreds of calories just by standing upright for hours. I actually enjoyed it, but private lessons were expensive, so I gave up. Also, people made fun of me.
But then the Eternal City hosted the Ryder Cup, meaning that golf culture came to us in the form of 300,000 golf fans, who flocked here from all over the world. Romans suddenly found themselves at the centre of a completely alien game, one that is apparently best watched while wearing centurion costumes as fancy dress and mocking your opponents.
Antonella is a medical student. “I hate golf,” she said, “but the small village they built to host the event was awesome – like a golf microcosm with food and drinks and merchandise. It had a cool American vibe.”
Hosting a key golf event in Italy is really very unusual. We Romans are all football addicts, but lately our sporting culture has been changing. Rugby is on the rise, with parents taking their kids to watch matches at the stadium. And funnily enough, Italian rugby players are also considered some of Europe’s best. And now golf was giving Romans something else to enjoy and cheer for.
“Let’s admit it: too much football can sometimes get boring,” says Paolo, who owns a newspaper stand close to the entrance of the Ryder Cup village. “The Ancient Romans held competitions of tons of different sports across their vast empire,” he says, “so we have it in our DNA to embrace other sports, too. This event makes us more international.”
It was also an opportunity for some VIP-watching, and for the paparazzi to start chasing famous guests around the capital. Our local papers made a big fuss about the famous international attendees. They also had to write articles explaining to perplexed Italians exactly what golf is.
Giovanni, a university researcher and tennis pro, told me that there was no long-term plan for the Ryder Cup to convert Italy to the sport. “It’s like staging a global gala dinner for charity at the Trevi Fountain or the Red Bull diving competition that takes place in Puglia each summer,” he said. “It draws attention and brings money to the economy, but golf is not really part of our culture. I think we need to stick to what we do best: playing football and hosting football championships.”
Rome’s mayor issued a few pompous statements on the grandeur of the event, but even he knew this was a grab for tourist euros. That it was a golf tournament was irrelevant to us; it might as well have been a motorbike rally or a drinking competition.
Italians have a saying: “Never leave the old road for the new”. Rome tried the “new road”, but most of the city was left baffled. Meanwhile, the Englishmen in their centurion costumes celebrated as Europe won.