FarmLinks is a unique experience, and a unique American golf destination.
Foremost, FarmLinks is a wonderful, scenic and engaging golf course spread over a large, bucolic estate in the rural hinterlands an hour southeast of Birmingham. The enormous property offers up every bit of natural scenery central Alabama has to offer and the golf holes, designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry and opened in 2003, waste none of it. There are only two homes anywhere close to the course (along with seven nicely appointed multi-room cottages for multi-day visitors), and the atmosphere is one of total escape.
Secondly, FarmLinks serves as a kind of “living laboratory” for agronomic products and turfgrass growing. The Pursell family, owners of the 3,500-acre site called Pursell Farms, have been pioneers and industry leaders in slow-release fertilizer technology for decades. At FarmLinks they’ve created a program in which golf superintendents from across the country visit for educational seminars, information on the latest research and development and demonstrations of how the various chemical products can be applied to different turfs.
Each hole features different strains of Southern grasses. The championship tee box on the par-5 1st hole, for instance, is planted with an A1/A4 bentgrass blend. The subsequent tees are Zorro zoysia, Cavalier zyosia and Tifsport bermuda, respectively. The hole’s fairway is Tifway 419, the green is the A1/A4 blend and the rough is tall fescue.
Subsequent holes have combinations of these grasses with some Diamond zoysia and Paspalum mixed in, along with different roughs that include Broomsedge, Switchgrass and Lovegrass (all the greens are A1/A4). Most players will only notice the difference on fairways planted with the Zorro zoysia (the ball sits up more), but from an agronomical perspective it must be interesting to see how the grasses react to different treatments throughout changing environments, soils and light exposures.
The early holes go back and forth through what was once farmland at the center of the property and include the strong three-shot opener and the very good mid-length 3rd with a saddle-shaped green hidden behind an elevated bunker.
The par-3 5th is probably the most dramatic and memorable one-shot hole in the state. After a prodigious hike from the flatlands up into the tees benched in the flanking foothills, it drops about 175-feet down to a large green fronted by a depression and small creek. It’s one of the most significant, vertiginous downhill holes I’ve seen.
From there the routing slowly works its way off the side of Chalybeate Mountain back down to the open basin. The 10th is another solid par-5 through the farmland with cross-bunkers on the second shot and a difficult canted green. The 12 through 15 loop circling a grassy wetland is lackluster but the course finishes with character with a dogleg par-4 into a wooded, elevated green, a do-or-die par-3 over water and a the enormous, wide open par-5 18th through an expansive section of prairie.
The diverse topographical elements of the FarmLinks property–prairie, farmland, forest, creeks and mountainside–must have made the architect salivate. But if there’s a weakness it’s in the way it’s all stitched together. The different scenes are slightly too different and the effect is a sort of forced confederation of formerly independent landscapes. Without a more unified motif FarmLinks ends up playing like several different courses in one.
It’s difficult to fault the design for wanting to grab and showcase all the ingredients on hand, but there’s probably a more unified and authentic golf course that remains entirely down in the farm section of the property.
The best greens are those like the 1st, 2nd, 10th and 18th which sit low and play like extensions of the fairway. While the putting surfaces possess enough contour to remain interesting day-to-day, the shaping and sometimes overworked presentation can strike a slightly plastic note.
But whatever–FarmLinks is a hell of a fun ride and an engaging spectacle in one of the most scenic and peaceful settings a visitor to Alabama could hope for. I’m a little amazed it doesn’t get more regional attention than it does. It’s a truly worthwhile experience (90). [Note: Pursell Farms is dry, so if you come to visit overnight or for a few days tuck a bottle of bourbon into your bag.]
Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry