Few know about Alabama course that doubles as research center

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

SYLACAUGA, Ala. - What if there was a superbly designed, immaculately conditioned golf course where public play was almost discouraged, but if you showed up anyway, you were treated like a king?

That's how they operate at FarmLinks, arguably the most unique golf course in America. FarmLinks, which opened in the summer of 2003, is a research and demonstration golf course used for teaching and experimental purposes. But don't let that fool you. FarmLinks is also a championship layout, which hosted the Dixie PGA Section Club Professional Championship in September and is slated for major college tournaments and other professional events in the future.

Owned by the Pursell family of Pursell Technologies Inc., FarmLinks was the brainchild of PTI owner and CEO David Pursell. Its primary purpose is to test products, conduct research and educate superintendents and golf industry professionals. It's also a great way to entertain the clients of PTI, which makes a popular patented polymer-coated fertilizer product both for the golf course and agricultural markets.

But since it's a golf course, it needs more golfers than its small groups of VIP visitors. And while FarmLinks doesn't go out its way to fill teesheets, it welcomes players with open arms.

"We get transient golfers. We don't get the same guy every week," says Director of Golf David Stinson. "We try to bill this as a special place that you might come to once a month or so."

FarmLinks is special on a number of levels. It's located on Pursell Farms, a spread of rolling hills that capture Alabama's natural beauty at its best. Despite the fact that each hole is in essence a test plot, the Dana Fry design seems to flow seamlessly through ponds, streams and hills.

The golf course features impeccable A-1/A-4 bentgrass greens, which are fanned in the summer (a nice byproduct for golfers putting in the summer heat and humidity), but that's where the continuity of grasses ends. In total, including an expansive practice facility, there are more than two dozen variety of cool and warm season grasses - which includes bluegrass, bent, TifSport and SeaShore Paspalum, to name a few - yet most players barely even notice it.

"Nobody has ever said anything negative about it," says Stinson, who tries to get feedback from every golfer as they come off the course. "Most people will notice a difference in the color and texture, but it rarely even comes up in the course of when I talk to them."

To those in the know, the differences are striking. Take the par-16th, for example. The fairway is Zeon zoysiagrass, a fairly new cultivar that's very uncommon in the South, but could become that way as the grass becomes more available and more research is done. It is undoubtedly the best playing surface on the course. The brilliant light green color stands out from the elevated teebox, and those lucky enough to find the fairway truly get to experience the best possible lie in golf. The ball sits up like it's on a mat.

That same zoysia can also be found around the eighth green and a bunker that was enlarged by 20 percent this summer. The 254-yard par 3, which plays from a tee elevated 47 feet above the green, is typical of FarmLinks. The zoysia and blue thermal grass in the rough were recently added. In another example, the par-5 18th has featured several kinds of grasses in its fairways this year, including Princess and Riviera Bermudagrass. A few weeks ago, zoysia was installed there, too.

"I think we're always going to be in a construction phase here," says Mark Langner, director of agronomy and applied research at FarmLinks.

That's because FarmLinks has plenty of partners willing to test its wares. Toro, for example, provides the latest in mowing equipment. Syngenta, a pesticide and chemical company, is putting several new products through its paces. The latest in golf cars are provided Club Car (and you need the greatest with elevation changes up to 150 feet). And Turfgrass America trucks are constantly rolling in with sod and labor. In fact, it's not uncommon for a fairway to be changed out in a day and have it reopen in three days for play. In two weeks changes are hardly noticeable.

When you arrive for play, though, you never get the feeling that you're part of an experiment. The golf professionals and host starter explains some of what's going on at the course before play, then it's a first-class experience all the way - from the bluegrass music playing in the background in the cart staging area to the intimate clubhouse lunch setting.

Each hole is unique, but the one what's talked about the most is the par-3 fifth. At 210 yards, it plays much shorter because there's a 158-foot drop in elevation from tee box. The green, at 8,400 square feet, is the largest on the course, and it needs to be. There's very little bailout. Miss the green or the bunker behind it, and finding your ball in the hay is a challenge, much less hitting out of it.

In fact, it's the par 3s that probably set the course apart. Each has its own character and three of the four feature highly elevated tee boxes. The 17th, for example, plays over a pond, dropping to a 7,335-foot square foot green, which sits behind the property's magnificent Parker Lodge.

From the back tees, the par-72 plays to 7,444 yards with plenty of hazards, native grasses and not-so-native grasses. You'll use every club in the bag. So bring your best and most imaginative game.

The verdict

Some will argue that FarmLinks may be one of the best in the state of Alabama. No argument here. With Mark Langner and his staff's expertise and all the partners involved, you would be hard-pressed to find better conditions, and the Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry design is superb. Plus, when you consider that the course does just 12,000 rounds a year, the prospect of playing without seeing another group is most appealing. Don't be surprised to find owner David Pursell or his father, Jim Pursell, in the clubhouse to personally greet you.

Places to eat

Since food and drink are included, the FarmLinks Grill is the spot for lunch. The Farmhouse Chicken Salad is the house specialty and perfect fare at the turn, but the clubhouse offers a variety of sandwiches and burgers, plus special off-the-menu items that vary each day.

For a more local flavor, try The Hog just outside the property on County Road 002. Pulled pork is the specialty. (256) 245-8515

The Cappuccino Café at 37225 U.S. 280 in Sylacauga offers salads, chicken fingers and great desserts. (256) 208-0073

The White Villa at 300 E. Third St.has more upscale offerings, including authentic Italian fare such as the chicken fettuccini Alfredo, which ranks with the best anywhere. (256) 249-9020.

Places to stay

The 14,000-square-foot Parker Lodge located behind the 17th green is a sportsman's paradise, filled with trophies and a complete game room on the lower level. Each of eight large bedrooms is named for different people, including Pursell family friend Jim Nabors of Gomer Pyle fame. Availability is limited because of the many VIP tours scheduled during the year. Call the course for more information.

The Birmingham Marriott
3590 Grand View Parkway
US 280
(205) 968-3775

Jameson Inn
89 Gene Steward Blvd.
(256) 249-4141

Rates

The $100 fee includes green and cart fees, range balls, snacks and beverages, and lunch at FarmLinks Grill. Talladega County residents are eligible for discount rates. FarmLinks and Pursell Farms are alcohol free establishments.

Fast fact

FarmLinks is part of the 3,500-acre Pursell Farms, which also includes Pursell Technologies' corporate headquarters. The property was once grazed by thousands of longhorn steer. The family still has cattle there, and you can see that on the back nine, but the rolling hills also provide a natural habitat for deer, bobcat and turkey.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.


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