Amid a truculently chaotic Roman rush hour, the taxi driver is ranking the sports that are more popular than golf in Italy. It is a long journey. Which is just as well, because he has a lengthy list. “Football, tennis, formula uno, Moto GP,” he begins, before the language barrier intervenes and we veer sharply towards mime. Finally, after performing the actions for swimming and – possibly – volleyball, he concludes: “E il golf!”
Welcome to Ryder Cup week in the Eternal City, and a fresh battle for hearts and souls. More than 150,000 fans are expected over the next three days at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, 10 miles east of Rome, for the biannual contest between Europe and the US. It is expected to again be a huge sporting and financial success. Yet one great imponderable remains: will it also be a gamechanger for golf in Italy?
A delightful chat with Franco Chimenti, the president of the Federazione Italiana Golf, would convert even the flintiest doubter. “This is the biggest sporting event on Italian soil since the 1960 Olympics and the World Cup in 1990,” the 84-year-old tells the Guardian from a swish executive box along the first hole. “It will be a historic moment. And I really believe that such a big planetary event can turn the page for golf in Italy.”
The Marco Simone certainly looks the part. The course, which is owned by the House of Biagiotti fashion brand, has recently received a $15m (£12.4m) renovation. There are amphitheatre-like vantage points and huge grandstands across the course. And, on a clear day, St Peter’s Basilica can even be seen.
It will make for great TV – the event is being shown live on state broadcaster Rai – as well as Instagram images which need no filter. Yet when walking across Rome there is also no great sense that the Ryder Cup is on the city’s doorstep, save for the odd poster here and there.
There was a similar lack of prominence on Italy’s most popular sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport on Wednesday too. Its Ryder Cup package was unsurprisingly buried below multiple stories on Napoli, Juventus, Inter – but also the 40-year-old Chinese boxer Zhiel Zhang, Formula One, Moto GP, Andrei Shevchenko becoming an independent advisor to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a quiz, the Rugby World Cup and volleyball.
“Ryder Cup, instructions for use: the secrets of the golf tournament that is as good as the Olympics,” read the headline on its main golf piece – before offering a well-judged Ryder Cup FAQ intended to be “a small guide to pretend to be an expert in front of the television and amaze friends and family even if you have never picked up a golf club”.
And that is likely to include many Italians who will be watching golf for the first time at the Marco Simone this weekend. Fans from 87 different countries have bought tickets, with the three biggest distributions in terms of nationality being the UK, US and then Italy. And don’t just expect to rock up and get in either. The event is a sell-out with single-day passes going for hundreds of euros on the secondary market.
That is an impressive feat given that golf has never been a significant sport in Italy – with Francesco Molinari’s 2018 Open victory the only major triumph for an Italian golfer.
However, among those who cover sport in Italy, optimism is tinged with understandable caution. “In Italian we have a saying: ‘Se non ora, quando?’ If not now, when?” the Italian sports journalist Erika Primavera says when asked about whether the Ryder Cup will be a game changer.
“There will be a lot of people here. The weather and food will be great. Then there is Rome. The target is clearly to put golf on the map, and the federation has made a great effort to encourage people to play. But I don’t know if it is enough, because the sport is too expensive for us.”
Another journalist, Simone di Stefano of LaPresse, agrees. “We tend to be good at sports where it doesn’t take much to get started, such as soccer and swimming,” he says. “You need just a ball or a pool. But with golf, like tennis, you need to buy equipment and you need lessons to get good.”
However the Italian Golf Federation is determined that those barriers to entry will come down. As part of its bid to host the event it promised to build on its 94,046 registered golfers – including 20,000 women – that play on 368 courses across the country.
And as Chimenti looks out onto his field of dreams, it is clear that he believes in the motto that if you build it, they will come.
“I have been to many Ryder Cups on European soil and in the United States so I know what to expect,” he says. “But I am certain this event will be spectacular. It will stay in all the minds of the people, as well as all the players.” And, he hopes, all of Italy too.