Golf swing through Alabama ends with a weekend dose of iron

FarmLinks is No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Alabama.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One of my earliest sports memories is of what I simply refer to as “the Clements game.”

Tom Clements was a fine college quarterback in the 1970s at Notre Dame. He even was an All-American as a senior, had his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated and made some serious noise in the Heisman voting. That normally would carry a lot of weight with a Catholic kid who used to come home from Mass every Sunday in the fall and watch highlights of the previous day’s Irish game, narrated by Lindsey Nelson.

But then there’s the Clements game. The date was Dec. 31, 1973, and Notre Dame was playing Alabama for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl. By that time, my sister Mary had married into a family from Birmingham and had begun a torrid love affair with the Crimson Tide that continues to this day. Her little brother soon became swept up in the Tide. It probably didn’t hurt that Mary had bribed me with an Alabama jersey for Christmas. So by New Year’s Eve, “Go Irish” had been replaced in my vernacular by “Roll Tide.”

Which brings me to Clements. With two minutes left in that Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame led 24-23, but faced a third down from its 3-yard line. That’s when Clements dropped back into his own end zone so casually that he could have been walking down Bourbon Street, trying to decide where to have dinner.

He heaved a prayer down the left sideline to an obscure sophomore tight end named Robin Weber, who caught the ball at the 33-yard line and was tackled less than 10 yards from Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, identifiable by his houndstooth fedora. Game over.

Don’t think the Tide faithful forget easily. They have a collective memory like, well, the elephant that serves as the school’s mascot.

Take Thomas Russell, for example. He and his son, Alex, were my playing companions the day before the 2012 Iron Bowl – the annual rivalry game between Alabama and Auburn – at Ol’ Colony, a municipal course where the Alabama golf team’s practice facility is located. The Russells had made the 150-mile drive to Tuscaloosa from Cedar Bluff, Ala., the previous day, Thanksgiving, for two days of tailgating near Bryant-Denny Stadium. Thomas, clad in a white ’Bama golf shirt and crimson cap with the script ‘A,’ boasted that he hadn’t missed a home game in 20 years.

As we were waiting to hit our tee shots on the par-5 third, I suggested to Thomas that Oregon might be a worthy national-title opponent.

“Oh, no,” Thomas said, brusquely shaking his head. “We want Notre Dame.”

“Payback for ’73?” I asked.

“’73, ’74, ’75, ’76, ’66,” he said.

That 1966 team, he reminded me, “might have had the best defense ever.” It gave up only 37 points during the regular season and pitched six shutouts, but the undefeated Tide finished third in the final rankings, behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, which played to an infamous 10-10 tie in their season finale. Tide fans can handle losing to those blasted Northerners; what doesn’t sit well is getting hosed by a bunch of elitist snobs who couldn’t make it through the soupy-thick humidity of summer drills in Tuscaloosa.

By the time I met the Russells, it was a foregone conclusion that Alabama would drum hapless Auburn, which was finishing a winless Southeastern Conference campaign. That fact didn’t sit well with some of my playing partners leading up to the game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

My first stop that week was at Pursell Farms in Sylacauga, a 45-mile drive southeast of Birmingham, where the Pursell family is as much a part of the Auburn culture as Toomer’s Corner and the golden eagles who circle Jordan-Hare Stadium before games.

The Pursells opened FarmLinks Golf Club in 2003 to showcase their Polyon fertilizer product line. The family sold Pursell Technologies in 2006, but many weeks you still can find course superintendents from around the country visiting FarmLinks to study the use of fertilizers on the course’s various grasses. (At No. 1, there are three different grasses, depending on which tee is used, and the fairways employ grasses such as Tifsport and Paspalum.)

FarmLinks’ prominence as a “living laboratory” sometimes obscures this fact: The Pursells and architect Michael Hurdzan created a wonderful golf course. FarmLinks ranks No. 1 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Alabama. It is the anchor of a stay-and-play resort, with comfortable accommodations, hunting, fishing and a golf academy led, naturally, by Auburn grad Layne Savoie.

CEO David Pursell’s mandate to Hurdzan was to create a fun course for average players. The course has width, but also an abundance of fun shots and a smattering of pure golf eye candy evident at two of the par 3s: the lovely lakeside 17th, backed impressively by Parker Lodge; and the forever views from the fifth, which falls 170 feet from tee to green.

Like the Pursells, my nephew Jackie was resigned to Auburn’s fate when I met him the next morning at Oxmoor Valley’s Ridge Course in Birmingham. Like his sister Courtney, he is an Auburn grad, and he was a former All-American tailgater during his days on The Plains. (Yes, you read that correctly. My family has divided loyalties where the Iron Bowl is concerned. Remarkably, Thanksgiving dinner remains a civilized gathering.)

The Ridge, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, made a strong impression that resonated long after I had left. Consider the back-to-back par 5s that anchor the opening stretch.

No. 2 swoops downhill to a natural green setting, a reminder that you’re in the Appalachian foothills, while the third shot on No. 3 plays uphill to a green backed by a wall of shale rock, which recalls the industrial history of a city long symbolized by Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forging. That strong sense of place – a course that embodies its hometown’s ethos – is one reason why the Ridge ranks among the trail’s most well-regarded designs, sitting at No. 9 on Golfweek’s Best in Alabama list.

On game day, Mary donned her stylish houndstooth scarf and escorted me to Tuscaloosa, where the tailgating scene was festive, if somewhat subdued given the historic rivalry. On the way to her regular seats near the 40-yard line, she stopped at the concession stand for her lucky hot dog, which she had no interest in consuming, but without which she feared some evil cosmic kismet would befall the Tide.

She needn’t have worried. By the time Alabama coach Nick Saban pulled his regulars early in the third quarter, after the score reached 49-0, only two things stood in the way of the Tide’s third national championship in four years: a game Georgia squad, which gave ’Bama all it could handle the next week in the SEC championship game; and overmatched Notre Dame, which wouldn’t have stood a chance in the national-championship game even if the ghost of Tom Clements suddenly had lined up behind center for the Irish.

Because of an assignment, I had to decline Mary’s offer to join her for the BCS championship game in Miami.

But as I watched Alabama rout Notre Dame from a restaurant in Carlsbad, Calif., I thought of Mary, in her natty houndstooth scarf, and Thomas Russell, cloaked in crimson and white, finally getting their just revenge.

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