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August 2019

Looking Beyond the Science

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FarmLinks goes from Research Course to Resort Destination

By Sally J. Sportsman

Environmental stewardship has become a watchword in the golf industry, affecting multiple facets of golf courses, including resort courses. From initial design to renovation, from conservation practices to policies during play, facilities are ever conscious of striking a balance between safeguarding natural surroundings and providing a memorable golf experience.

While every golf resort has distinguishing characteristics, FarmLinks at Pursell Farms in Sylacauga, Alabama, stands alone in its distinctive history and attributes with environmental stewardship one of its guiding principles.

 “We never intended to be a resort,” says David Pursell, president, CEO and co-founder of Pursell Farms, who is also an accomplished artist. “At first we used the golf course as a marketing strategy for our fertilizer business, but we morphed into a family resort with golf at the center.”

Pursell Farms, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is a four-generation family endeavor. DeWitt Alexander Parker, Pursell’s great grandfather, was the first general manager of what then was known as the Sylacauga Fertilizer Co., founded in 1904. In 1959, the fertilizer business officially changed its name to Parker Fertilizer Co. James “Jimmy” Pursell, David Pursell’s father, helped market the company’s Sta-Green specialty fertilizer products to stores and nurseries all over the Southeast. A milestone setting the company apart from the competition was the development of slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers. The company, which had made a name for itself, became Pursell Industries.

In 1997, David Pursell assumed the role of president and CEO of Pursell Technologies. His visionary idea was to invite the fertilizer’s end users, golf course superintendents, to come see the product in action firsthand. To this end, FarmLinks Golf Club was built in 2002.

“It was the world’s only research and demonstration golf course,” Pursell says.

The course was designed by Hurdzan-Fry Environmental Golf Design Inc. (now Hurdzan Golf). Dr. Col. Michael Hurdzan (R-USAR Special Forces) is well known in golf course design for his expertise in environmentally sensitive course architecture. Today, FarmLinks consistently is ranked among the best public golf courses in Alabama. 

“The golf course was to be routed through at least four distinct environmental zones: the open meadows, the ‘mountain,’ the woods and the wetland areas,” says Hurdzan. “We did lots of alternate routings and would review them with the Pursell family and their team until it was felt that we were maximizing the potential of the land.

“David was the driving force, but Jimmy and Chris, his parents, were deeply involved because they loved the land so much and were willing to permit the golf course to allow guests to enjoy the farm as much as they did.”

Groups of golf course superintendents, no more than 15 at a time, were invited to Pursell Farms to view the efficacy of the fertilizer products and learn first-hand about their technology, application and environmental-protection features. The superintendents, who stayed free of charge at Pursell Farms for three days and two nights, were welcomed with Southern hospitality, including home cooking. Two groups a week arrived over 42 weeks each year.

“It was essentially relationship marketing,” says Pursell. “We had a high chance of getting the superintendents to understand our product and to trust us.

“We were nobody. We started our visitation strategy in a small way in the 1990s, then built Parker Lodge, where the superintendents stayed.
“They felt as if they had ‘arrived.’”

Steve Mona, executive director of WE ARE GOLF, has visited FarmLinks at Pursell Farms on several occasions, from its grand opening to other events through the years.

“It served as a living laboratory of sorts, in terms of turfgrass research and other innovations,” Mona says. “ The natural beauty of the property, along with its seclusion, not to mention the steady hand of David Pursell and his team, have also contributed significantly to its success.”
Pursell Industries, which grew robustly over the years, was sold in 2006, including the patents and machinery.

“As everyone knows, golf took a hit not long afterwards,” says Pursell. “We had to decide what to do with the assets we didn’t sell: the farm, the golf course, the lodges and the capital projects on the farm.

“We had to figure out how we were going to survive with a gorgeous golf course out in the middle of nowhere.”

The family decided to create a resort offering a unique and memorable experience. Today, Pursell Farms, a private business, has evolved into a premier regional family farm resort available for corporate retreats and leisure getaways. The unwavering goal is to provide guests with a superior experience.

Golf, although now just one of a myriad of activities at Pursell Farms, remains at its center. Over the past four years, both overall golf revenue, as well as golf revenue per player, has risen 25 percent, according to Pursell, even though rounds have been flat at 19,000 rounds per year. About 25 tournaments a year are hosted at the golf course. About 25 percent of the resort’s annual revenue is from golf.

“Our top-line revenue more than doubled the first year we were open,” Pursell says, “and we expect it to triple by two years from now. That’s resort-wide.”

FarmLinks at Pursell Farms, which focuses on exceptional customer service and course conditions, provides premium tee times for golfers staying on property. Each guest room has its own golf cart. Public golf is allowed once resort guests have secured their desired tee times. 

Sally J. Sportsman is an Orlando, Florida-based freelance golf writer. 

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