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A Simpler Game | Living Laboratory

FarmLinks is not just a top-rated resort—It’s also a research-and-development golf course that has schooled thousands of superintendents

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LINKS.

Located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Sylacauga, Alabama, FarmLinks Golf Club has everything you’d expect from a top golf resort: a well-designed, immaculately maintained course; a first-rate golf academy; luxurious accommodations and good food; as well as other great amenities like hunting, shooting, and fishing.

But there’s much more below the surface—literally. FarmLinks is the world’s first and only demonstration golf course. Since it opened in 2003, about 1,000 industry professionals and superintendents from all over the world have taken part each year in the all-expenses-paid “FarmLinks Experience,” a three-day symposium on eco-friendly practices, money-saving techniques, and cutting-edge technology.

 “With our partners, we try to point out how their products offer solutions to various problems,” says Mark Langner, the director of agronomy and applied research. “It could be a problem with a disease or having to reduce a budget and still maintain the property at a certain level. Everything we do fits into this paradigm of the aesthetics of the course, the playability of the course, and the financial impact.”

In other words, everything our “Simpler Game” platform adheres to. In addition to seminars with partners Agrium, BASF, Toro, and others, Langner takes superintendents on an on-course tour where different chemicals and grasses—some experimental—are on display. With his thick Southern accent, Langner gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about “playing around” with a new bluegrass,planting bunker faces with a new drought-resistant bermudagrass, called Discovery, that dramatically reduces mowing because it grows laterally instead of vertically, or conducting a trial on a new heat-tolerant strain of bentgrass, AU Victory, developed with Auburn University.

“We’ve had a long hot season and the AU Victory is performing very, very well,” he says. “It looks really good.”

Resort guests can take part in a self-guided agronomic tour as they play their rounds. The yardage book not only provides colorful hole depictions, playing tips, and distances, it also details the different grasses on each hole. Some fairways, for instance, feature a Tifway or Tifsport bermudagrass; others are covered in zoysiagrass. While the layman might not notice much disparity, superintendents can easily differentiate between them because of differences in maintenance requirements, texture, density, and temperature and traffic tolerance.

As further education, golfers are given a little foldout guide that directs them to 30 numbered signs on the course’s R&D trail showing the various projects Langner and his staff are working on. “We’ll even highlight blemishes on the golf course, areas where we had a hydraulic leak, fertilizer burn, or high traffic,” says Langner. “We installed a couple of ‘Better Billy Bunkers’ [named after former Augusta National superintendent, Billy Fuller, who invented an improved drainage design] and explain how they perform. We also have a couple of different nematode [microscopic worm] studies going that give golfers an idea of what it takes to take care of a golf course. They really don’tunderstand. They’re blown away by the conditions they see on TV, but don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes.”

FarmLinks was the brainchild of David Pursell, who saw it as a novel way to sell his family’s patented, controlled-release fertilizer, Polyon. Instead of relying on salesmen with big expense accounts and salaries to sell the product (known commercially as Sta-Green), he figured why not bring potential customers to them? Pursell knew that to properly educate the industry he needed to demonstrate how effective his product was. What better way than with a first-class golf course?

But first he had to convince his dad, Jimmy, who didn’t want to spoil his beloved 3,500-acre cattle farm, 45 minutes southeast of Birmingham, with its rolling hills dotted with oaks, pines, and streams.

“You want to build what?” he barked. “You just want to play golf!”

“It was the biggest sales job I had to do,” says David, whose primary corporate duty was running the in-house ad agency. “When my father finally bought into it, he saw that it was a strategy to grow the company. It’s nice to look back and see it worked. I could have been the laughingstock of the family.”

Needless to say, if you’re going to build a golf course in the middle of nowhere and expect people to want to visit, it had better be a pretty strong track. Architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry were told to select the best land for the holes. Their only restriction: David’s mother didn’t want to see it from the family home. With wide, inviting fairways, large, undulating, bentgrass greens, and long-range views, the 7,444-yard layout entices people to travel from all over to play. The most memorable hole, no doubt, is the 210-yard 5th, which drops 170 feet from tee to green.

The Pursells sold the company to Canadian fertilizer giant Agrium in 2006 for $100 million, so David and his team now focus on improving the resort, adding four-bedroom cabins around a private putting green (great for cocktail competitions), a five-stand sporting-clay range, and a dedicated garden for farm-to-table dining. Also available are hunting and fishing adventures, cooking classes, and spa treatments, as well as top instruction from former Auburn player Layne Savoie, who has a TrackMan launch monitor for advanced swing analysis.

But FarmLinks is still dedicated to advancing the science of golf agronomy so superintendents can create the best conditioned yet economically and ecologically viable courses possible. Says Langner: “What I like is that we’re able to look outside the box and try some different things, have successes,but if we have some failures, that’s okay, too, because we’re trying to learn.”                                                                                    

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