Living Lab

From biscuits to one of the world's most cutting-edge courses, there's always something cooking in this quiet corner of Alabama
Living Lab Pursell Farms downhill par 3 FarmLinks

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There’s no easy route to Pursell Farms, and that’s a good thing. The drive in, no matter the point of origin, is a paradise for those who prefer the back roads. The two-lane blacktop winds through Sylacauga, Alabama, forcing visitors to take in the waves of farm country that roll through grazing land and hardwood forests right up to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. You’re getting close when you see pin flags. 

The inn overlooks the bending par-5 18th hole, and its 40 rooms are almost always full. The Pursells and their ancestors have been hosting people out here on their land since they arrived in 1886, although this boutique resort is merely the latest iteration of the family business. At one point in the early 2000s, its FarmLinks golf course was ground zero to one of the most innovative turf programs in the world.

FarmLinks turned the golf course maintenance industry on its head by becoming a living laboratory. Holes featured different grass types and maintenance techniques, giving superintendents a real-world look at what was possible at their courses. During the lifespan of the “Experience at FarmLinks,” more than 10,000 superintendents visited, and the Pursells went from a middle-of-the-pack supplier to golf’s No. 1 provider of fertilizer products.

The course, still pristine and ranked among the best in the state, remains open to the public. And the man behind it all is talking about a second one.

Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks David Pursell and Mark Langner
David Pursell (left) and Mark Langner in the Parker Lodge at Pursell Farms.
Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks brand

David Pursell—or D.P., as family and friends call him—meets me with a smile at the inn’s front door. He’s the heartbeat of the family, many of whom still live and work here. The resort they run is largely the result of his vision, which was to transform it into one of the most popular places in Alabama for golf weekends, weddings and corporate retreats. Soon we’re joined by Mark Langner, his longtime friend and former employee. Langner was the original superintendent at FarmLinks and one of Pursell’s most trusted partners during the early years. They quickly get to laughing, remembering the old days when the inn’s main building was the corporate office for the family fertilizer business. Much has changed since then.

With one hand on the wheel of his white GMC pickup truck and a constant gaze upon his property, Pursell shares how his family first came to Sylacauga some 20 years after the Civil War. Like most small-town stories, the tale of how they got into the fertilizer business is as long and winding as the roads of Talladega County. By the time his father, Jimmy, asked Pursell to join the business, it was one of the leading agricultural companies in the state.

But Pursell had chosen a seemingly different path. He studied commercial art at Auburn and was inclined to put that degree to work in a creative field. Jimmy talked his son into joining the company’s small marketing department, and Pursell eventually turned it into an in-house ad agency to sell their commercial and industrial products.

A challenge, an unexpected break and some hard work turned the family business in an unanticipated direction. Jimmy challenged Pursell to move a large stock of excess fertilizer. Soon after, a larger competitor called, looking to buy exactly what he had—approximately 10 tons of fertilizer components. But there was a catch: Before making the deal, the buyers wanted to tour the plant, meet the Pursells and get a sense for the quality of their product. Despite being wholly unprepared for such an endeavor, Pursell immediately said yes.

Knowing he couldn’t fake his way through the first-class accommodations these corporate visitors had experienced at other companies, Pursell leaned into what his family had in abundance: Southern charm. He picked the buyers up from their private plane himself, and before they saw one product, he introduced them to his parents. The visit included meals of fried chicken, homegrown beef steaks and, of course, Mrs. Pursell’s baked goods. Jimmy told old stories of Sylacauga’s history and shared anecdotes from his friendship with 1960s television star Jim Nabors. They stayed in a small, simple guesthouse on the property. After 24 hours on the farm, Pursell took his guests on the plant tour and walked them through the product line. He drove them back to their jet, shook hands and wondered if he’d hear from them again. They called back days later and bought the entire lot of product.

Living Lab Pursell Farms boathouse FarmLinks

Pursell immediately began plotting how to deploy this newfound competitive advantage. He was placed in charge of a spinoff company called Pursell Technologies, created to sell a promising product to golf courses. Thanks to a patented time-controlled-release coating, the Pursell brand of fertilizer was a perfect fit for the rapidly expanding American golf industry. The family had a product that could save money and give superintendents new levels of control when planning their maintenance schedule. “It was like jet fuel compared to the kerosene everyone else was selling,” Pursell says as we bounce alongside a shimmering green FarmLinks fairway.

Our first stop is Parker Lodge, a rustic cabin on steroids that sits on a ledge overlooking the par-3 17th hole of FarmLinks. Named for Pursell’s grandfather and adorned with taxidermy, leather couches, wood-grain walls and room for 16 to sleep, it’s their Southern-inspired version of a party house. The large communal dining area and big screened porch overlook the pond and well-worn fire pit below. Today, it’s part of the resort. Back in the fertilizer days, it’s where business got done.

“Our competition would take folks to a Holiday Inn boardroom and do a short program,” Pursell says with a sly smile. “Maybe they went to a golf course, but people were distracted. Not plugged in. Here, the agenda was on us. We controlled everything. It was truly an experience.”

Just like with his first corporate clients, Pursell would bring his parents to the Lodge to meet the assembled supers. “My mom and dad got so involved in meeting our guests,” he says. “They were the patriarchs. To the superintendents here, it was like meeting Colonel Sanders in a KFC.”

After racking up some solid sales wins, Pursell pitched his family on an even grander scheme: He wanted to build the world’s first research-and-demonstration golf course and bring superintendents in from around the globe. There were some raised eyebrows about additional expenses, increased traffic on the farm and actually running a golf course, but the family bought in.

With the straight face of a man undaunted by visionary plans, Pursell explains that his inspiration for FarmLinks came from Walt Disney. When building Disney World in Florida, Disney saw the resort’s second park, known as EPCOT, as a place that would celebrate human achievement. Some described Disney’s dream as a “permanent world’s fair.” Pursell saw the same in FarmLinks. 

It would be open to the public in order to show off real playing conditions, use different grasses and maintenance techniques on different holes and include plenty of places to experiment with emerging turf technologies. To build this superintendent theme park, Pursell tapped architect Michael Hurdzan. They knew each other well, both having received awards for their contributions to sustainable practices and lowering golf’s environmental impacts. Hurdzan and his partner, Dana Fry, knew immediately they had a special piece of land. “The Pursell farm was so damn big, there were endless environments to work with,” Hurdzan later told me. “Mountains, meadows and wetlands. We were blessed with options.” 

Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks

The golf course is laid out in a rolling valley at the base of the Appalachians. It has layers of hills, grassy plains and dense hardwoods. There are no homes to disturb the views, and the routing is an excellent exploration of the property. The course is easily traversed, with one notable exception: The fifth hole at FarmLinks sticks out like a sore thumb. Or, more accurately, down. While it was originally planned as a gently climbing par 3, Fry came to Pursell during construction with a wild notion that dramatically changed the course’s identity and created perhaps the most photographed hole in Alabama. 

Pursell shakes his head telling the story. “Dana came to me and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. You better come see.’” So they jumped on four-wheelers and Fry took him up a mountainside with a 170-foot drop. He pointed down to the bottom, where he envisioned a green. The view was a showstopper. 

“Fry told me, ‘It’s gonna cost you five times as much, and your course will never be walkable,’” Pursell says. “But we had a partnership with Club Car and I really liked that view, so I said, ‘Go for it.’” 

Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks downhill par 3.
The view from the tee at Hang Time

No. 5 is one of the steepest holes in America. While listed as “Hang Time” on the scorecard, among family and friends it’s known as “Jimmy Falls,” in honor of Pursell’s father. During construction, the then-72-year-old patriarch took an evening walk up the mountain to survey the hole’s progress, slipped and fell the entire way down. He came away with serious injuries, including numerous broken bones, somehow walked himself home and had to be life-flighted to Birmingham. He was lucky to live to tell the tale (often).

Our next stop is the agronomy center, or what I will forever remember as the Taj Mahal of maintenance sheds. The living laboratory is officially closed, but the commitment to state-of-the-art playing surfaces remains. Walking among gleaming tractors, fertilizer equipment and a dizzying collection of greens fans, Pursell and Langner go on with stories of how supers would come together on the farm.

FarmLinks opened in 2003, and it didn’t take long for the course to gain notoriety well beyond Alabama. Pursell and his family would give visiting supers the full family treatment while Langner talked turf. It was basically superintendent summer camp. Langner remembers the after-hours hangs as some of the most fun times of his career. “We used to have a light in the tree behind the Lodge, and it lit the 17th green,” he says. “The supers would putt all night long, and things got interesting.”

The course quickly became known as one of the most important places in the golf world for agronomists to network, cross-pollinate best practices and share secrets. Pursell says one super got the FarmLinks logo tattooed on his leg. The tours became so frequent that Pursell had to staff up to manage them. “We ended up having a couple ladies who acted as reservation agents,” he says, still in awe. “We did two groups a week every week for 42 weeks a year over six years. There are 16,000 golf courses in the U.S., and we got most of them here. Every top-100 course, too.” Pursell Technologies vaulted from a middling supplier to the top provider of fertilizer products in the golf industry. 

The success made the company a valuable target for acquisition. Pursell, with lingering disbelief, remembers being courted: “Three companies got into a bidding war for us. It was the epitome of the American dream.” 

When the Pursells found an offer they liked and sold off their fertilizer business, there was a large gathering to determine the family’s next step. They had come into some large profits from the sale of their ventures and had also negotiated to keep the sprawling farm and the former company assets there. It was enough for many to rest, but Pursell was already onto his next plan.

Sitting around the same dinner table that originally got them into the hospitality business by feeding fertilizer executives, the Pursell family decided to fully pursue what they did best. By reinvesting much of what they made, the Pursells transformed their golf lab into a property that now includes a village of cabins, trails, restaurants and outdoor activities. Their wedding venue has become one of the most in-demand in the South. “It’s the Augusta National of wedding venues,” Pursell says. “You can almost hear that guitar lick from CBS when they come down the aisle.” 

And he hasn’t forgotten about the farm’s biggest draw. Pursell has engaged in discussion with some leading architects about a second golf course. With the land he’s got and the look on his face when he drops names like King-Collins and Coore & Crenshaw, it’s clear he is serious about creating another gem. Langner jokes that such a move might even bring him back to tend the grass.

Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks David Pursell and Mark Langner
Despite the family’s successes, David Pursell isn’t ready to rest. “I always look for things that can be done better,” he says. “What we do well now doesn’t interest me that much.”

Every visionary needs a place to view their works in full. For Pursell, it’s a perch on top of a nearby mountain that straddles the farm. He calls the cleared peak “the secret place,” but is eager to share his view with others. 

He diverts from the main road through the farm and takes his truck on a steep climb up a rocky path. He’s getting reflective, but his mind is still moving.

“I always look for things that can be done better,” he says. “What we do well now doesn’t interest me that much.” 

As brush smacks the side of the door and gravel spews over the cliff edges, Pursell’s smile grows larger. He accelerates at the summit, and widespread views of pastoral Alabama flood the eyeline. 

Pursell says that he likes to come here with his wife, pour a glass of wine, turn on some Frank Sinatra and take in the sunset. A deeply spiritual man, he often comes alone to think and pray. But he also knows it’s also a useful tool when selling the resort to prospective brides, corporate retreat planners and other VIPs. 

“We don’t get turned down much after they see this view,” he deadpans.

From here, he can see it all: his home, his children’s homes, FarmLinks, the inn, the Lodge and the small cemetery he’s built, which holds the remains of his parents, Jimmy and Christine, and both his maternal and paternal grandparents. Someday, it also will hold his. But not yet. There’s too much left to be done. 

Living Lab Pursell Farms FarmLinks cross