Above: The fantastic, 532-yard, par-5 sixth hole at FarmLinks Golf Club.
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — For an area of the country where the average high temperature is 74 degrees and summer temps reach well into the ’90s, the word “cool” wouldn’t seem to apply. Birmingham, Alabama, however, didn’t get the memo. In fact, it’s turned into one of the coolest towns in an otherwise scorching South. Arts, eats, beats — “The Magic City,” has conjured all of that and more. And oh yes, some great golf, too.
It wasn’t always that way. Founded in 1871, Birmingham over time became a center for iron and steel production, and once disdained for its history of intolerance and exclusion. The city has long since turned its back on such ways, and turned its eyes on a future of acceptance, diversity and inclusion. Today, the city’s thriving economy is based on a mixture of manufacturing and service-oriented positions. Tourism and health care are important to the economy, too, of course, and the health care industry is the largest employer in the greater Birmingham area. Art galleries, museums, restaurants of all kinds and activities abound in Birmingham. It’s become a cool place to live and to visit. And even though college football is “king” in Alabama, it’s also a great place to play golf.
Birmingham’s history in golf is long and storied. Its first club, the Country Club of Birmingham, was established in 1898 and included a baseball diamond, tennis court and a horse-drawn buggy track. A year later, its first golf course was created with tin cans serving as cups on the greens. In 1917, 15-year-old Bobby Jones of Atlanta won his first Southern Amateur Championship at Birmingham’s Roebuck Golf and Automobile Club. It was one of three “Southerns” Jones would win during his legendary career. Last summer, 101 years later, Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn won her first U.S. Women’s Open in a playoff at Birmingham’s famed Shoal Creek Club, a course designed by perhaps the greatest golfer of all time: Jack Nicklaus. Long and storied, indeed.
Oxmoor Valley is one of two stops on the highly regarded Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail that are available around Birmingham. Located just minutes from the newly revitalized downtown area, and set on mining land once owned by U.S. Steel, Oxmoor Valley is a 54-hole facility that opened in 1992. The three layouts here — The Ridge, The Valley and The Short Course — are all beautiful, challenging and fun to play. From the tips, The Ridge measures a hefty 7,055 yards. Three other tees are available, however, with the shortest measurement coming in just under 5,000 yards. While tree lined and fairly tight, the main challenge (for me at least) comes from the changes in elevation, thanks in part to the nearby Appalachian Mountains. Many holes play down from the tee and then back up to the putting surfaces.
It makes the course play much longer than its yardage and often results in blind or semi-blind views of the greens. Flatter and much more traditional is the Valley course. Even longer at 7,162 yards from the back markers (three other tees are available), The Valley meanders along a two-mile stretch of land that features lovely lakes and streams, lots of trees and plenty of bunkers. Like Ridge, The Valley is very pretty but a stern test for even the best players. The Short Course at Oxmoor Valley, like all of the par-3 layouts on The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, is any- thing but a pushover. Just 3,350 yards from the tips, an “A” on this ACT-type examination will require your “A game” for sure.
Thirteen miles south of the city, in Hoover, is the newest member of the RTJ Golf Trail: Ross Bridge. Officially, this spectacular spot is called the Renaissance Birmingham Golf Resort & Spa. The big name, however, is appropriate. In all of my years of traveling around the country playing golf courses, I don’t know that I’ve seen a more majestic property. Like everything else here, the golf course (opened in 2005) is big, too. In fact — at a whopping 8,191 yards(!) from the tips — it’s reported to be the fifth longest golf course in the world. Worry not, however. Four other tees are available, the shortest at a kinder, gentler length of 5,312 yards. Fittingly, I suppose, the fairways are very wide and the greens quite large, which should make hitting one or both much easier. Most impressive to me, however, was the size of the property the golf course sits on. Playing over the rolling hills here, taking in the long views of the gorgeous landscape, I was certain there had to be 36 beautiful holes at Ross Bridge, not just 18.
To top it all off, guests at the extremely handsome, 240-room Renaissance Hotel have access to three restaurants, a full-service spa, a 24-hour fitness center and indoor and outdoor pools. It’s impressive, to say the least. For a dining change of pace, however — one you won’t regret — be sure to take a 10-minute drive and experience the Bright Star Restaurant in Bessemer.
Roughly 50 miles southeast of Birmingham, outside the town of Sylacauga, is family-owned Pursell Farms Resort. Once the site of a sod farm, the property was eventually home to the Sylacauga Fertilizer Company, manufacturer of a slow-release product that turned out to be ideal for golf courses. The question was: how would the company get this good news out to golf course superintendents throughout the country? The answer was: Instead of sending salespeople all over America, bring the superintendents to Sylacauga to learn first hand about the fertilizer’s attributes. Taking the idea one step further, the owners decided to build a golf course that would really show how good the products were. Designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, the new “teaching” facility — FarmLinks Golf Club — opened in 2003 and quickly proved successful … in more ways than one. Over the years, thousands of golf course owners and operators visited the property and saw how helpful the product was for all kinds of grasses. Perhaps even better, the golf course itself was a hit. In 2011, just eight years after it debuted, Golf Digest named it the seventh best course in the state. In 2017, Golfweek called FarmLinks the No. 1 course in Alabama “that you can play.”
In 2016, however, the fertilizer company was sold to a foreign firm and a new direction was needed for the Pursell family. Today, the facility features accommodations and amenities for groups of all sizes. Golfers and non-golfers alike can settle down at the beautifully decorated 40-room Inn at Pursell Farms, Parker Lodge, Hamilton Place, Orvis Farm House or one or more of four cabins and three cottages. There’s a spa, a shooting range, biking and walking trails, horseback riding and two restaurants that offer fare from fine dining to pub grub. The golf course, however, remains the centerpiece of the property.
Not surprisingly, this beautiful layout is in excellent condition — all of it. From the tips, FarmLinks stretches to a very healthy 7,444 yards. To accommodate players of all abilities, thankfully, four other sets of markers are available with the shortest tee at 5,250 yards. But built to impress the guests, FarmLinks is also quite wide, and that makes it very playable, even for players with minimal talent. Located close to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, stunning vistas of the surrounding countryside are common. One of the best views is from the tee at the par-3 fifth, its green sitting well over 100 feet below. It’s quite a hole, quite a sight, and quite a golf course — one that I could play every day and never get tired of.
Like so much that’s available in and around Birmingham, Alabama, Pursell Farms Resort and its FarmLinks golf course is pretty cool. And it’s one more reason I want to go back.
For more information about what many people refer to as “The Magic City,” please visit www.inbirmingham.com.