By Wayne Mills
Special to GolfWRX
Wayne Mills is a New England-based freelance writer who has been producing golf stories for over 20 years. He has written for national publications such as Golf Inc. and superintendent-related, regional golf-lifestyle magazines and websites in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest and was a golf columnist for two daily newspapers. He has played over 700 golf courses from Canada to the Caribbean and from Cape Cod to California.
Unique is quite possibly the most misused word in the English language. It’s supposed to mean something like one-of-a-kind or more precisely the only one in the world but gets applied to places that are pretty good or merely kind of different. Based on the strict definition, FarmLinks, in Sylacauga, Ala., is unique. As the world’s only research and demonstration golf course, FarmLinks is a proving ground for the golf industry’s most advanced products and techniques.
The story of FarmLinks begins in 1904 at a family owned fertilizer factory in the small town of Sylacauga in rural Alabama about an hour southwest of Birmingham. D. A. Parker (born 1866) and family used to produce fertilizer for local farms when King Cotton ruled agriculture in the Deep South and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made separation of cotton fiber and cotton seeds economically feasible.
His son Howard (born 1896) took over the business and grew it into cotton ginning and warehousing operations as well but his big move was in the mid-1950s when the company made its first foray into the lawn and garden market with a product called Sta-Green plant food.
The transition from farm market to mass retail was effectuated greatly when Jimmy Pursell (born 1930) married Howard’s daughter. After graduating high school up the road in Talladega, Jimmy went off to Auburn University (then the Alabama Polytechnical Institute) and came home with a degree in business administration.
After serving in the military during the Korean War, Jimmy returned to Sylacauga and went to work for his father-in-law in the fertilizer business. After being taught the ins and outs by Howard, Jimmy became responsible for expanding the Sta-Green franchise to hardware stores and nurseries throughout the Southeast.
Soon the specialty fertilizer portion outgrew the farm products business. As the business grew, more new products and markets were explored. One of the milestones that set them apart from their competition was the development of slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers. With that in mind, the company worked closely with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the introduction of high-quality, sulfur-coated urea in 1973. The company eventually built its own sulfur-coated urea plant, which thrust the company into the international arena and identified them as a leader in fertilizer technology.
That technology produced another breakthrough with the early use of Reactive Layers Coating (RLC) starting in 1987. It took several years to perfect the technology and make it practical, but the company eventually earned patents for it under the tradename Polyon. Using the RLC process exclusively, the company soon became the largest producer of coated time release fertilizers in the world. Over the years, Jimmy created several operating divisions in the organization to better serve the varied needs and demands of customers. The company became Pursell Industries and split into two separate entities in the late 1990s.
In the meanwhile, the next generation of the Pursell family came into the business, David Pursell (born 1959). David also attended Auburn but had an artistic bent and majored in commercial art. He joined the family trade after school and started an in-house advertising division. Later he advanced to director of sales and marketing. By 1997 he was CEO of the combined Pursell Technologies.
Along the way David became enamored with the game of golf, getting down to a single digit handicap and as the golf course boom of the 1980’s and 1990’s took off, selling fertilizer to the golf course maintenance industry became a significant aspect for Pursell Industries.
Over the course of time the Pursell family also acquired an old farm outside Sylacauga that encompassed 3,500 acres naming it Pursell Farms. Combining his golf avocation and his agricultural vocation with his artists mind, David’s ah-hah moment came in 2001 when he conceived and initiated construction of his long time vision, FarmLinks Golf Club.
The golf course became a research and demonstration course intended to improve the entire golf industry through its ability to serve as a living laboratory and ongoing focus group for industry leaders. On June 4, 2003, the vision came to fruition as 550 guests, including family friend, Jim Nabors, and Gov. Bob Riley, made their way to Sylacauga to celebrate the official opening of the 7,444-yard, par 72 Hurdzan-Fry design course.
Partnering with corporate sponsors such as Toro, Club Car, Agrium, BASF, TruTurf, Profile Golf, Vortex, Wacker Neuson, Frey Lit Designs, and Foley United, Farm Links has hosted over 1,000 golf course superintendents a year from around the world since opening.
The visiting supers get to study turf grasses, fertilizers, drainage systems, irrigation systems, pump stations, water management, bunker liners, pest control, tractors, mowers and blades.
Proving he is very adept at ah-hah moments, David Pursell sold out the fertilizer business to Agrium in early 2006, just before the financial crash of that year. He was gracious enough to accept their $100 million payment. He likened it to “paddling down a lazy river in your canoe and deciding to pull out a mile above Niagara Falls.”
While still maintaining their course maintenance focus, Pursell Industries and FarmLinks are moving more into the hospitality business.
FarmLinks offers some spiffy accommodations in their cabins, cottages and the Parker Lodge. To call them cottages and cabins is being quite modest. They feature private baths, great room, stone fireplace, kitchen and dining area, covered porch and golf cart parking (each guest gets their own golf cart to drive around the property.)
If anyone is looking for a corporate or group meeting facility FarmLinks really shines in this department featuring:
MEETING SPACE: Select from several conference rooms equipped with HD plasma screens, high-speed wireless Internet access and convenient laptop connections for AV presentations.
HIGH-TECH THEATER: For larger multimedia presentations, break-out sessions, movies or receptions, our state-of-the-art Solutions Center features a high-tech presentation theater, indoor/outdoor demonstration areas, a kitchen and dining area and a large, covered patio space with fully equipped audio capabilities.
FOCUS GROUP CAPABILITIES: And to gain immediate feedback, suggestions and opinions from your audience/clients, our focus group facility with one-way observation room are the ideal choice.
FarmLinks Golf Club is just a joy to play. The Hurdzan and Fry design gives plenty of room off the tee but, of course, there are better angles coming into the greens than others. The routing winds through the full gamut of elevations from along the streams on flat ground, up on the rolling hills and all the way into the side of the Appalachian Mountains foothills for the par 3, fifth-hole tee (210 from the tips) that plays 175 feet downhill to a massive green.
If you hit the ball in the fairway you will never have a bad lie at FarmLinks and the bentgrass greens are as good as they get. Having bent this far south is not an easy maintenance chore but with their sub-air systems, large fans and hand watering FarmLinks gets it done.
With five sets of tees from 5,250 to 7,444 FarmLinks gives every level of player a chance. The 6,970 and 6,457 tees are good options for the stronger players.
Anyone who wants to really improve their game can sign up for the FarmLinks Golf Academy. Layne Savoie is the lead instructor directing all programs ranging from junior golf programs to corporate leisure packages. A wide variety of individual instruction is also available for guests with specific needs or varied interests. Savoie played at Auburn, won as a professional, taught players on the PGA Tour, learned from the best teachers in the country, coached All-Americans, and recruited the highest ranked players in the world. Savoie is a very dedicated teaching pro who really tunes into your game.
Stay and play options are offered but there is a great deal for day trippers- an all inclusive green fee, cart fee, range balls, all non-alcoholic beverages and lunch; plus, you can play more than 18 holes (on a space-available basis).
The food is superb and served up in the cozy clubhouse and in a bow to the hospitality trade, FarmLinks now has a full liquor license. Given their strong agricultural connection, they feature fresh farm to table vegetables, fruits and meats and have brought in 5-star chefs to prepare for their guests.
Other diversions offered at FarmLinks include a five stand skeet shooting range and two ponds that are managed for lunker largemouth bass. All the necessary equipment can be provided.
For true outdoorsmen early-season dove hunts start in September, followed by quail hunting with the finest bird dogs in the South. Knowledgeable, courteous guides will take guests on turkey hunts in the spring, and guided deer hunts in November.
The entire FarmLinks experience is just one mellow and relaxing place. The staff covers all the bases but with laid-back Southern hospitality that is never intrusive. You can feel the tension and stress slip away the longer you stay.
If for some reason being really mellow all the time isn’t your style, plan your trip for early May or early October and head a few miles up the road to Talladega Superspeedway for a NASCAR race. There you can commune with 143,000 of your closest friends and watch the boys wheel it at the highest speeds of the season on NASCAR’s fastest track.
In 1987 Bill Elliott established the world stock car speed record of 212.809 miles per hour in qualifying and in 1997 Mark Martin won the race with an average speed over 500 miles in excess of 188 mph.
FarmLinks is not only unique but a special place for a couples trip, a corporate retreat, a buddies trip or just a great day of golf. It will take some effort to get there but the reward is well worth it.