Designed by Dr Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, the course at FarmLinks Golf Club opened its tees for play in 2003 and has never looked back. Routed generously though part of the 3,500-acre Pursell Farms estate in Sylacauga, FarmLinks continues to garner golfing admirers and for good reasons.
The course forms the sporting focal point of a property that is part resort, part research and learning centre, where the boundaries of agronomy and agriculture are constantly being pushed by a family business that has been successfully operating in this line of business since 1904.
Feature holes include the pond-protected par fours at the 2nd and 9th and the long, downhill par threes at the 5th and 8th. On the back nine, the 616-yard 18th is a formidable closing hole, with a couple of large oak trees and three fairway bunkers blocking the most direct route to the home green.
The following edited extract by architect Michael Hurdzan is from Volume Six of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected].
“At the epicentre of FarmLinks is the Pursell family, who for generations has lived on farms near Sylacauga, about fifty miles south of Birmingham. In 1904, descendants of the family formed and managed the Sylacauga Fertiliser Company that served local cotton farmers.
As each successful generation took over and managed the company, they sought to develop new technologies and markets. Over time, they developed a worldwide market for their high-tech fertiliser, Polyon, an encapsulated, slow-release fertiliser that is ideal for golf courses.
To showcase ground-breaking products, Pursell Technologies began to offer tours of its fertiliser plant. In 2001, under the leadership of then-CEO David Pursell, the firm began construction of his vision for FarmLinks golf course – the world’s first research and development golf course ‘to serve as a living laboratory’.
When FarmLinks opened in 2003, Pursell could then show clients their products in actual use on the course. So, at first, FarmLinks was intended as a way to demonstrate and market Pursell technologies products: but David saw how an even broader impact could be made by having so-called partners.
Importantly, these partners would not be competitors but rather companies that made and sold irrigation equipment, mowers and maintenance equipment, golf cars and pest control. Under this arrangement, these companies could now also test, compare and market their products on a course dedicated to Best Management Practices.
So, FarmLinks’ second incarnation was a broad-based industry showcase. Pursell Technologies sold its fertiliser business in 2008 but kept the golf course and its partners. The year 2011 marked the third life for FarmLinks: the world’s first educational program tailored for greens’ committee members and non-technical course superintendents.
Since the goal for the golf course was outreach education, small groups of superintendents and golf officials are invited to come to FarmLinks and stay for a couple of days of relaxed education. The guests stay at Parker Lodger, meals are prepared and served family-style in the large dining room, and guests relax and socialise in the great room, game room or multi-purpose room.
The program is wildly successful. Even so, David Pursell believed that the outreach was too limited; and so they re-evaluated and decided to develop a program for non-technical decision makers, such as those who chair the greens’ committees, sports turf supervisors and international guests interested in golf.
The intention is to give the students enough basic agronomy and business practice, and mix the knowledge liberally with hands-on practical exercise on the golf course. At the end, it is hoped the student understands how grass grows, the stresses caused by maintenance (and) what the superintendent has to do to counter those stresses.
FarmLinks is far more than just a fun test of golf, for it is also a living laboratory and educational outreach facility that distinguishes it as ‘first among equals’. Plans are to continue to expand the invitation list to include a wider variety of international guests from countries where golf is well-established, as well as places where golf is just starting to grow.”
I had read about FarmLinks at Pursell Farms golf course from an article on Links Magazine. I also knew it was on Golfweek’s top 200 golf modern courses in the USA. As I was traveling to play the Country Club of Birmingham the next day during a short golf trip, this seemed like a worthy place to begin the trip. The farm is located at the base of the Appalachian Mountains outside of Sylacauga where nearby is Alabama’s most historic and famous cave in case you are looking for something to do in case of a rainout.
The overview for this course on top100golfcourses.com provides a solid background to the course. I would add a few notes such as Jimmy Pursell married into the family by marrying Chris Parker, a granddaughter of the founder of the fertilizer company. Jimmy was asked by her father to join the business by becoming one of their top salesmen for the new Sta-Green products. The company became known for their development of slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers. Jimmy and his wife had three children, including David, who later had the vision to construct the research and demonstration golf course. David met Michael Hurdzan at a golf superintendent conference after listening to Mr. Hurdzan’s views on golf design and therefore selected him and his associate, Dana Fry to construct the course.
The golf course is part of a 3500 acre property. They could have chosen nearly anywhere to build the course given the scale of the land. Mr. Hurdzan and Mr. Fry were told that Jimmy’s wife did not want to see the golf course from their house. The final routing goes into the hills a couple of times, although otherwise a fairly flat course. The course uses different grasses on different holes, whether different varieties of Bermuda or zoysia. There are various markers as your play the course depicting important historical events or insights during the construction period of the course. The club logo is an interesting one, a longhorn in a dress shirt and tie.
The routing is fine although at times I wondered why slightly higher ground was not chosen for a few more holes. Perhaps that is because they were limited in their construction budget, or they did not want to surpass the stunning views of the high point from the fifth tee of 172 feet drop, or perhaps because it would not have fit with the concept of a research facility.
As for the course, perhaps because it is a public course as part of a resort where weddings and company meetings occur, the fairways are very generous as are many of the greens. It is difficult, although not impossible to lose a ball here. The greens are fairly simple with some interesting green surrounds on several holes but not on every hole. I found the most compelling green to be the holes near the end of the course with eighteen being the best green surface on the course.
The bunkering is good, sometimes large, deep and rugged, but more often offering a good chance to escape or advance a ball towards the green. I could see evidence of where it appeared some bunkers had been removed. There were a few holes where I thought the bunkering could have been improved both by adding a bunker or by relocating a bunker.
The course is a long one, and perhaps that is why it is rated as highly as it is. Yet even from those back tees the fairways are generous. From the Longhorn tees the course is 7444 yards, par 72 rated 75.9/142. The Copperhead tees are 6970 yards, rated 73.1/136. The Whitetail tees are 6457 yards rated 70.2/131. There are two sets of lesser yardages. For our first round we played the whitetail tees then went around the back nine a second time on the Copperhead tees.
1. Par 5 – 576/554/502. From a slightly elevated tee this hole plays out of the trees basically straight with two large bunkers on the left and the tree line going down the right although it stops about 275-250-200 yards out. Another bunker is farther up on the left but it can be avoided given the width of the fairway. The green has two large, deep bunkers on the front corners wrapping about halfway around. It is a friendly starting hole where I felt a set of bunkers down the right side of the fairway would have added to the hole.
2. Par 4 – 422/395/365. This is a fairly bland hole playing straight with a collection of three bunkers down the left side. The green is set against a pond on the left which begins about ten yards before the green and then curving away at the back half. There is a bunker placed on the back right corner of the green which did not make much sense to me as I thought it should have been in the middle of the green. The green has an obvious tilt towards the water from right to left and back to front.
3. Par 4 – 365/339/303. This short hole has its single bunker on the left but the landing zone is where the trees begin on both sides. There is a large, wide and deep bunker on the front right corner of the green. We had a back left pin location so the bunker was not a consideration. The green tilts towards that bunker but is fairly simple. It is a hole that should have a bit more excitement around and on the green given its length.
4. Par 4 – 478/445/426. I felt this to be the best hole on the front nine. The hole seems to play slightly up, then down then up again to the green. The fairway is very wide with flanking bunkers. The green sits on the other side of a stream that is more defined by its rugged rock and vegetation. The creek sits about ten feet below the fairway. There is about 30 yards of fairway on the other side of this stream where a long somewhat thin green awaits. There is a long and wide bunker down the right side and one on the back left corner built into the side of the hill. The land falls away into a long swale on the right side where it appears the bunker was once longer and now has been replaced by grass with a resulting ridge line near the green. The ground to the left of the green begins a sizeable hill that will bring an errant ball back towards the green unless one goes too far left into the tall grass. I did not see the need for the bunker on the back left corner as it did not seem to fit the risk-reward element of this long hole.
5. Par 3 – 210/192/172. One climbs the hill for the 172 feet drop from the tee to the green far below. There is an excellent view of the surrounding countryside from any of the three longer tees. It is beautiful and one wants to linger and take it the view, perhaps as long as 40 miles. The ball seems to hang in the air forever. It is essentially a forced carry to the green although there is a short ten yard piece of fairway to the right side of the green which is angled to the left. If one is left or short of the hole they will likely have a lost ball given the steep slope of the ground, rocks and vegetation which is right against the green. There is a bunker built into the hill on the right front, another built into the hill on the back side and a third bunker built into the downslope on the back left. The green has a substantial tilt back to front and right to left on the front half. There is a horizontal spine that creates nearly a level putt on the back right half. There are two markers on this hole. The first marker denotes where a member of General Andrew Jackson’s forces spied in the distance a marble quarry used for the Lincoln Memorial and other historical structures. The second marker denotes where Jimmy Pursell fell 40 feet during construction of the course in 2002 at the age of 72. He was alone at the time and lost his footing breaking several ribs and fingers and puncturing a lung. He climbed back through the bramble and loose dirt and back to his house where he was taken by helicopter spending the next ten days in the hospital. This is one of the finest downhill par 3’s I have ever played.
6. Par 5 – 532/500/474. This is a very easy hole if one does not get too greedy. There seems to be an extra acre to the right side of this fairway. Yet one is tempted from the elevated tee to carry the bunker on the left placed inside a rise of heavy grass that makes up the left side of the tee shot. All one has to do is fine the fairway and they are likely to have a good shot at birdie or even eagle. I set up for a fade but hit left and had a lost ball due to the high grass on the rise on the left. Even with a penalty shot I had a reasonable chance to save par as the second shot can run out down the slope towards the green. There is a bunker on the right that does not seem to be in play for the longer hitters nor in play for the second shot. The green complex is a bit more interesting with a center line bunker 20 yards short of the green and then bunkers on opposing corners. The green has a strong back to front tilt with good inner movement.
7. Par 4 – 428/402/370. This is another fairly uninteresting hole playing straight. The hole does offer a central bunker for the tee shot. The right side of the fairway has higher ground all the way to the hole. There is a bunker on the left about 30 yards short of the green which I did not understand. There is another bunker on the right middle and a large bunker behind the left side of the green. I did not really look much at this green as I hit my second to 8”.
8. Par 3 – 254/239/220. From an elevated tee with a nice view the hole sits below you in full view with a single bunker on the back left. I found this hole to be very unmemorable from a visual perspective but the long green makes up for it with a horizontal spine creating swales on either side. The back corners are also pushed up.
9. Par 4 – 458/436/405. The second best hole on the front is the ninth. You play through a chute of trees to a dogleg right with an inner corner bunker. A pond begins about 60 yards before the green on the right side continuing as a stream behind the green. There is a large bunker to the left of the green making a recovery shot likely towards a pin in the direction of the water. The hole could be made a bit more interesting with better contouring surrounding this green as well as making the fairways a bit more rolling, even if unnatural.
10. Par 5 – 547/520/486. From an elevated tee you play over Lake Christine that is longer down the right side of the fairway as it curves away. A bunker on the right sits on the other side of the pond. There is a bunker left a bit farther up for the longer hitters to avoid as the hole swings to the right. Assuming one hits a good tee shot, the rest of the hole is straightforward with the only consideration avoiding the trio of cross bunkers on the right side about 100 yards from the green . There is ample room to play away from them or carry them for the longer hitters. The green has flanking bunkers with a nice slope at the beginning. It is a long green that can be very speedy putting back towards the front of the green. Much like the first and seventh, it is not a difficult hole.
11. Par 4 – 433/412/385. I like this hole which plays straight with a single pine near the center of the fairway. There is a long bunker on the left at the point of a rise. The approach shot must carry a diagonal left to right stream that should not be in play on the left side but the right side gets within 25 yards of the green. The stream right’s side also has the taller grass. There is along bunker on the front right corner. On both rounds our approach shots did not hold the green and stopped in a collection area behind the green. The green seems to have a vertical spine in it.
12. Par 4 – 488/443/419. Due to the length of this hole it played difficult for me despite it being a dogleg left where I cut the corner a bit. The ground rises a bit from the tee box with flanking bunkers at the turn, one on the left and three on the right. The ground falls down towards the green but then rises again. The green is long and oval with fronting bunkers on the corner and a horizontal spine. There is a bit of subtle land movement in the fairway which increases the design of the hole.
13. Par 4 – 381/354/323. Easily the least of the holes on the course as the fairway is very wide with but a single bunker off to the right side which longer hitters will not be bothered. There is a front left corner bunker to a green that has a bit of a hollow in the front but otherwise seems to be fairly flat.
14. Par 4 – 444/412/381. This hole finishes the two consecutive holes that are the least on the back nine, much like holes two and three on the front nine. The hole has a wide fairway with a single bunker to the right. The green is a good one, however, with the two front bunkers making for a narrower opening. This green also has some internal movement with the exception of the back left. There is a pond that is in play off the tee for the longer hitters on the right side of the fairway. I wondered why the green was not closer to the pond or why the pond does not come into the fairway a bit more.
15. Par 3 – 228/204/180. The second long par 3 on the course although this one plays level. There is an early creek cutting diagonally through the hole but well before the green which has two large, deep and irregular bunkers on both of the back corners. The green is slightly raised. Balls missed to the right can go down the rise nearly to the tree line. The green has a lot of inner movement and slopes. It is a good par 3 where a par is a good score due to the green and those deep bunkers. This hole features a varieties of grasses, including Discovery Bermuda which needs to be mowed only once per year. Beginning with 15, the remaining four holes are very good.
16. Par 4 – 38/360/338. From a visual standpoint, this was my favorite hole on the back nine playing uphill after crossing over an early stream. The hole is a slight dogleg right with a thick tree line and higher ground on the left. One wants to stay as right as possible but need to stay short of a bunker right as well as stay above a ridge line that can send a ball ten-fifteen feet below the fairway into higher grass. The green complex is a good one with the green angled opposite of the turn in the fairway, with the green going to the left. A long connected bunker sits below the playing surface on the right leaving a shot where one can only see the flag. There is another bunker on the back left that seemed odd to me.
17. Par 3 – 196/173/145. Playing from a very elevated tee over a pond with the green set against the water, one cannot help but also notice the large house looming set on the hill behind the green. The green is triangular shaped due to the contours of both the pond and front right center bunker. The green tilts towards the water but not overly done. This completes a set of four good par 3’s offering both variety and different types of tee shots.
18. Par 5 – 626/590/563. This is a very long hole on the site of a former orchard of apple and other fruit trees. The fairway is very expansive but there are two trees placed inside the fairway, the right one about 15 yards closer. The perfect shot goes between the two trees although the second time we played the hole I wondered whether trying to stay left of the left tree was a wise play. For the second shot there are three staggered cross bunkers coming from the right side. The wise play is to play left of them unless one can carry them. The green is the most contoured on the course with a single bunker on the left front. There is a knob at the front right, a bit of a plateau back right and a swale/hollow on the left rear. While a long par 5 is often remembered simply for its length, this hole deserves recognition for its very fine green shape.
FarmLinks at Pursell Farms is what one would expect in a resort course with generous fairways and relatively sizeable greens. There are many very nice holes such as four, five, nine, eleven, twelve and the finishing four holes. The par 3’s are memorable and for me, the highlight of the golf course due to their variety and the lovely views from two of the holes. The par 5’s are the weakest part of the course with the exception of the finishing hole. I do wonder why more of the course was not routed on higher ground where there would have been more natural contours to the holes as too many of the holes are essentially flat. The bunkering is sometimes questionable, mainly in terms of location.
I walked away thinking this a course that is much better from the Longhorn tees for the long/scratch player or for a high handicapper who wants to be able to hit a poor shot but not be unduly penalized. There is a need for courses such as this.
If one is the area, it is a worthwhile course to play. It is a very friendly place and one will find a relaxing environment and course.
Awesome golf course here. Definitely worth your time to come spend a weekend out here. This course can be found on some farmlands in Sylacauga, Alabama. If you are an outdoorsmen with a set of clubs, this is your spot.
This hidden gem is one of my Top 10 courses I have ever played (this includes Pebble Beach, Southern Hills, Wolf Creek, etc).
Conditions, people, facilities, food, everything is 5*. The course is fantastic and the conditions are impeccable. Unbelievable variety of holes, with the Par 3 #6 my favorite. A 200yd tee shot that drops 150ft to a green far below!
The only drawback is getting to Sylacauga - but if you combine this course with the RTJ Trail, you will have the golf trip of a lifetime for pennies on the $.