The Tide In Alabama Rolls At Pursell
This piece was first published in the Globe & Mail November 2011
“Fertilize it and they will come” might well be the motto of FarmLinks Golf at Pursell Farms. About an hour south of Birmingham, Alabama, the 3,500-acre property belongs to the Pursell family, which made its name in the world of commercial fertilizers (they sold to Canadian company Agrium back in 2006). When they were looking to expand their recreational and ornamental fertilizer business in the 1990s, they were faced with a choice. Hire a large, costly sales staff to fan out across North America to sell their patented product.
Or, build a facility on their property and invite the golf superintendents to come to their wooded corner of central Alabama to try the firsthand. The Pursells chose the second option, and it succeeded beyond their hopes. Industry professionals flocked to the gentle rolling hills at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Staying in modern cabins and, later, lodges, they tried out fertilizers, mowing equipment and a range of products on site.
To enhance the research, the Pursells opened an impressive golf course in 2003, designed by the renowned firm of Hurdzan/ Fry, that stretches 7,444 yards from the tips. Now, in between golfers, the course crawls with agronomists studying the results of dozens of fertilizing and grass experiments happening on course. Toro mowers are a sponsor, too, using the site to try new equipment. Open up the players’ guide, and overlaying the yardages and tips are cryptic details such as “fairway aerified with Toro 298” or “perennial rye overseed” and “fairways top-dressed with MH400 (used 825 ton sand)”
While the course remains a teaching and experimental facility, FarmLinks no longer supports the Pursell’s former core fertilizer business. It’s now a resort looking to expand its business reach in the shadow of the popular Robert Trent Jones Trail and Gulf Coast locations. Why go to FarmLinks when you have alternatives on the Trail and the Gulf Coast?
Simply, FarmLinks is an all-inclusive resort where Southern hospitality and country charm are the selling points. For a golf group that is not looking for bright lights and action every night but a peaceful golf setting in luxurious cabins and modern lodges, FarmLinks is the answer. It’s country in all the right ways - right down to a suite named for favourite son, actor Jim Nabors.
The all-inclusive $135 daily rate (which drops to as low as $100 if tee time is after 1 p.m.) includes unlimited golf and use of the practice facility, carts, a Southern-style lunch in the clubhouse and complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. Visitors get no surprises in the form of gotcha’ fees, a bragging point of owner David Pursell. There is also a massive PGA Tour-quality, chipping and putting green behind the five cottages of Masters Row, exclusive to overnight guests, in case you want to sharpen your game on greens that stimped near 11 during our November visit.
As well, visitors can take advantage of guided hunting, fishing and a state-of-the-art five-stand clay shooting range on the property - a nice diversion when players want a rest from golf. (Always ahead of the curve, Pursell Farms has a no-lead shot policy to keep environmentally friendly.)
As for the course, which debuted at No. 39 on GolfDigest’s 2011 ranking of the best golf resorts in North America, the welcoming tone continues. It was the goal of the Pursell family to make a challenging course but one that doesn’t leave players battered and bruised. To that end, we played the Copper tees at a healthy 6,970 yards, but landing areas were wide and receiving, lined by playable Bermuda grass rough. Greens were lightning fast but avoid the tortured Himalaya effect that seems to dominate new course construction. Sand was luxurious and grooming impeccable.
The signature hole is the par-three No. 5 with a daunting 170-foot change in elevation down to green nestled in the side of a hill. Slide left and you’re gone. Too far right and you’ll find the bunker. The top stroke hole is No. 4, a sloping 478-yard par four with a green guarded in front by a grass ditch and protected by two large bunkers on the sides.
Finally, No. 18 is a fine closing hole, a 616-yard dogleg framed by two huge oaks in the fairway. Play this into the wind and you’ll have a finisher to remember.
For information on FarmLinks, check out www.farmlinks.org or call toll free 1-877-292-FARM (3276). Canadian visitors can fly into Birmingham International airport on a number of carriers.