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Photo by Anne Braly / The fifth hole, with a tee box 175 feet up the side of a ridge, is the signature hole at FarmLinks.

SYLACAUGA, Ala. — Located in the foothills of the Appalachians, Pursell Farms might best be described as a smooth sip of pure Southern comfort.

"I came home so relaxed, instead of other vacations when you come home and need a vacation to rest from a vacation," says Chattanoogan Alice Cobb, who made her first trip late last year to the 3,200-acre luxury resort just three hours south of Chattanooga. "It's a resort unlike any other in ways you have to feel and see to understand the serenity. It's a home away from home that makes memories that I know will last forever."

David Pursell took over the family fertilizer business as president and CEO in 1997. He expanded the company, already a major player in the country's fertilizer business, due in part to its popular Sta-Green fertilizer developed in the 1960s. The expansion, in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority, promoted the fertilizer for the nation's golf courses, vastly improving the greens.

Rather than having salesmen hit the road with the fertilizer, Pursell planned on bringing golf course superintendents to him, reversing the typical sales model. But one thing was missing: a golf course. So he built it, and they came, seeing firsthand the quality of the greens once Pursell Technologies fertilizer was cast over the greens.

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Pursell Farms in Sylacauga, Alabama

But Pursell needed a place to house his visitors, so he built a lodge. By 2002, FarmLinks was the only agronomic research and demonstration golf course in the world, playing host to more than 10,000 course superintendents from prestigious courses, including Augusta National, Torrey Pines, TPC Sawgrass and Pebble Beach.

In 2006, Pursell Technologies was sold so that Pursell could transform the property into what is now a world-class resort.

From corporate retreats to weddings, golf outings, girls getaways or a weekend for families, Pursell Farms offers something for all.

"Sporting clays, bocce ball, horseshoes, horseback riding on the weekends and all the other activities should be on your list of things to do, and you can do it all, or nothing. Just relax by the fire in the winter or the pool in the summer," Cobb says.

 

Stay the night

In addition to the eight-bedroom Parker Lodge built for golf-course superintendents back when Pursell Farms was a demonstration course, the resort features a beautiful, three-story inn opened in 2018. The inn features 40 guest rooms, some with large balconies with tables and comfortable chairs overlooking the pool and the 18th hole. All rooms — those in the inn, cabins and cottages — have luxury linens and other appointments, including soaking tubs in some rooms. Two homes offer a step back in time: the Hamilton Place Home, circa 1852, with two bedrooms, and the Orvis Farmhouse, built in 1830, with three bedrooms.

There are also seven four-bedroom cottages and cabins, five of which are just steps from a putting green solely for guests in those five cabins. All offer common living areas, and you'll find your own golf cart outside your front door. The resort is large, and you'll find it comes in handy. Chattanooga native Bonny Brooks Traylor did during a stay with a large wedding party.

We actually rented two of the cottages, and we all had our own golf carts," she says. "The cottages were beautifully decorated and spacious. Pursell Farms is a beautiful spot and has something for everyone, and it's close enough to Chattanooga to make it perfect for a weekend getaway."

 

A choice in dining

Tommy Hines recently became executive chef over Pursell Farms' culinary programs, including catering the many events held at the resort as well as overseeing operations in the two dining venues at the farm: Arrington and Old Tom's Pub, both located in the inn. Though they offer different menus, there's one thing that connects them both: food from as close to the area as possible, following the farm-to-table movement, something that has taken hold throughout the country.

Hines, a native of New Orleans, grew up and honed his culinary skills in a part of the country where farm-to-table is a way of life. The warmer climate allows for year-round produce, and the fruits of the sea are within easy reach.

"That's how I learned to cook," he says. "We cook with the seasons, using foods that are out our back doors. We use Creole tomatoes when they're in season. We use Louisiana peaches when they're in season and the fresh seafood in the Gulf and the foods that are at your back door. Everything that's available to you. That's just how I learned to cook, and I think that's the best way to cook. Why cook something that's not from your area?"

When he came on board, he changed a menu that already featured local fare and added more. For example, crab au gratin featuring crab from Gulf of Mexico, not too far away; a salad of local kale and Brussels sprouts; and chicken and sausage gumbo, a salute to his native roots.

Arrington is open for breakfast and dinner. Old Tom's Pub is a casual lunch and dinner option where the game room features a pool table from the Pursell family's good friend, Jim Nabors, a native of Sylacauga who also spent a few years in Chattanooga working at what is now WRCB.

The pub is one of Traylor's top picks for a quick meal. "They have excellent food and a great bar," she says. "I've also been wanting to take a cooking class there."

Cooking classes are just one of the special culinary events held at the farm. Other food-related fun includes wine dinners; learning the basics of cooking with cast iron over an open fire; and special-event brunches. The restaurants at Pursell are open to all, not just overnight guests.

 

Playing a round

Golf is the granddaddy of outdoor sports at Pursell Farms. For eight straight years, the course, FarmLinks, has been named the No. 1 course in Alabama by Golfweek magazine. It was chosen as one of the Best Golf Resorts for Buddies in Golf Magazine's Top 100 resorts for 2019. Most all fairways are broad with spacious landings and wide roughs. The two high-handicap holes are numbers 4 and 12, both par 4's, and it's hole No. 4 that presents most golfers with their biggest challenge of the day. At 426 yards, it's a long hole, and just before the green is a large ditch that requires a high second shot to land on the green.

The tee box on the signature No. 5 hole is a jaw-dropping 175 feet up the side of a ridge, offering amazing views of the surrounding country. This hole is one example of how the course takes advantage of the mountains, lakes and woodlands that surround the entire course.

The course, designed by course architects Hurdzan-Fry, remains a leader in the world of golf course maintenance and has the distinction of being the only research and demonstration golf facility in the world.

 

Shoot a round

The farm's Orvis Shooting Grounds, one of only three in the United States and the only one in the South, opened in 2015, and in less than five years has become a premiere experience for enthusiasts who appreciate the professional quality for which Orvis is known.

It's a place where experts can spend a day in the sporting clays field with 15 simulated "hunting" stations, or customized clay shooting on the new, five-stand Trapper Experience accompanied by an Orvis guide. It's also a place where beginners can learn the basics and be hitting targets before they leave.

"I teach you to shoot where you look and not look where you're shooting," says Chuck Baker, chief wing shooter instructor for Orvis.

You can bring your own gun or rent one made in the USA by gun makers Caesar Guerini and FABARM. Overnight packages include one round on the sporting clays course, as well as a UTV experience up Sulphur Mountain.

The outdoor company also offers seasonal fly fishing on five well-stocked lakes around the property.

 

Four-wheeling around

Pursell Farms has a mountaintop adventure that can only be discovered by hopping on a UTV (utility terrain vehicle), putting it in four-wheel drive and making your way up the side of the ridge overlooking the resort. Your end goal is driving over rocky dirt roads to the top of Sulphur Mountain, where you'll look down on Talladega Springs, a once-thriving community thanks to springs said to have magical healing powers and a popular inn. But there are sights to see along the way.

The first stop on this UTV Mountaintop Experience finds you at a beautiful spot they call "secret place," says guide Sid Sims who rides ahead in her own UTV, leading the way. "Secret Place used to be a place only the locals knew about, but now it's not so secret anymore," she says. Secret Place overlooks a beautiful lake fed by the Coosa River.

"That ride up Sulphur Mountain was great," Cobb says. "The view is outstanding, and it's a place where they have yoga classes sometimes. And on your way up the mountain, you stop at a tire swing and can spend time swinging over a mountain creek."

The UTVs seat four people, and the ride takes about two hours.

 

Say 'I do'

Destination weddings continue to be a popular option for grooms- and brides-to-be, and you and your wedding party won't have to travel too far to find a beautiful, 22-acre wedding venue in the heart of Pursell Farms. With the 3,500-square-foot Hamilton Place ballroom, a large outdoor terrace and glass-enclosed sun porch and a tremendous front lawn, there are numerous places to set things up and, afterward, dance the night away.

Beforehand, though, visit the Spring House Spa for a massage. It's a wonderful experience in which to indulge and treat your bridesmaids before the big day. The spa is located in the same grouping of buildings as the ballroom.

This is also the area in which the Hamilton Place historic home is located. With two bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, it's ideal for those who need immediate access to the wedding venue.

The ballroom and its adjoining rooms can easily be set up for corporate conferences as well.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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