Alabama has a long golf tradition, boasting 11 courses created by famed architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. across the state. But there’s one course in particular, near the rural town of Sylacauga, that should be added to any golfer’s wish list.
Set on a 3,200-acre family farm, Pursell Farms isn’t somewhere you might happen upon. It’s more of a destination unto itself, located one hour from Birmingham, Alabama, and two and a half from Atlanta, Georgia. The closest town is the former railroad crossroads of Sylacauga where, in 1904, DeWitt Alexander Parker founded a fertilizer company.
“That was back when fertilizers came out of the back end of an animal,” says David Pursell, Parker’s great-grandson and CEO of Pursell Farms.
The Sylacauga Fertilizer Company began to grow, working with small farms in the area. After Parker’s death, the company passed to his son. Howard Parker Sr.’s daughter Chris was introduced to future husband Jimmy Pursell by Alabama-born actor Jim Nabors.
“I owe my very existence to Gomer Pyle,” jokes David Pursell of Nabors’ most memorable role.
Jimmy went to work for the Parkers’ family business, settling on the farm and growing their family. The couple had three children, all of whom have gone on to work for the company.
In the 1950s, the fertilizer company started to shift from agricultural to residential and commercial. The product itself also changed, becoming more technical based on client needs. Pursell Fertilizer Company, as it was by then known, created a patented controlled-release technology called POLYON.
“It was an unbelievable technology, kind of a polymer coating that you would spray on top of little small fertilizer granules. We could layer on and it would last longer,” says Pursell.
David Pursell joined the family business in 1980 and moved back to the farm. In 1997, the consumer portion of the business was sold off and he became the CEO of what remained, which included the client base of ornamental nurseries, specialty agriculture, and golf courses.
“There was only one problem we had, and that was that nobody knew about [POLYON]. That was really my charge was to introduce this to as many people who could utilize this technology while our patent was on and for us to be able to really make as much hay as we could while we had the technology under patent.”
He decided to raise awareness for the company’s products through the people that used them: the golf superintendents. These highly trained experts are responsible for golf course maintenance twelve months out of the year. They make decisions on the fertility of the turf, which inevitably affects the playability of the course.
“I had an idea to create what I called the ‘Epcot of golf.’ We focused on golf because golf was a huge growing market back in the late 90s and early 2000s,” he told me. “I need[ed] to create something that golf superintendents from not just around the country or North America but from all over the world would want to come to visit.”
In 2002, Pursell opened The Experience at FarmLinks, a unique golf course designed to showcase and test out their products. Pursell flew in these superintendents from all over the world for a few days of golf, good food, and Southern hospitality.
“[At] every hole we had a different application of our products.”
The 18-hole championship Hurdzan-Fry-designed FarmLinks course has gone on to be named one of the top in the nation by GOLF Magazine, Golfweek, and Golf Advisor. The layout is diverse, and the course is player-friendly, with surprises at every hole. Golfers also enjoy the use of the top-of-the-line E-Z-GO 2021 RXV ELiTE golf cars.
“Hole number 5 is a famous hole. It’s a par 3 and there’s a 170 foot drop from the tee to the green,” Pursell says of one of FarmLinks’ most playful holes. “If you’re a golfer, you really love that. If you’re not a golfer, you can kind of ride the UTV up to the pro tees up there … It’s one of the most photographed golf holes in Alabama.”
In 2006, Pursell sold off the remainder of the company but kept the farm and its application of the technology. The attention moved towards FarmLinks and the people interested in visiting. What started as a way to learn about the fertilizer’s capabilities for golf has now grown into one of the South’s most incredible resorts.
“We did hospitality for a business purpose, but we never ever considered utilizing all of this in a general hospitality. We never planned on getting into the resort business,” Pursell says of his family’s farm-turned-resort.
When the superintendents visited, they were put up in the 15-bed Parker Lodge named for the company’s founder, which Pursell calls the ultimate “man cave.” As interest grew, Pursell Farms added additional cabins and cottages, some featuring Pursell’s drawings of famous golfers. The 40-room Inn at Pursell Farms followed, taking inspiration from the historic Talladega Springs Resort, which operated from the 1800s to 1921.
The resort has one of three Orvis clay shooting facilities in the United States, a spa, and a state-of-the-art wedding venue. Guests can navigate the miles of trails via UTV to a lookout atop Sulphur Mountain the Pursells call “The Secret Place.”
After a day of teeing off, guests can enjoy a drink at Old Tom’s Pub, named for Thomas Mitchell Morris, a noted Scottish golfer, with its wall of celebrity photos and Jim Nabors’ pool table. Arrington’s overlooks the golf course, honoring Chris Parker Pursell’s father, with dishes like seared chicken with seasonal vegetables. The Grille at the Clubhouse has quick bites to satiate your post-game hunger.
No matter what brings you to Pursell Farms, the hospitality is unrivaled, from the golf pros to the restaurant waitstaff.
“[It is] really just about treating people well, making sure that their first impression of the farm is more than they expected.”