Martin shared wisdom and insights for 30-plus years
"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self."
The job of a university extension agent is to tell golf course superintendents what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. The two often are mutually exclusive.
For years, superintendents in South Carolina and beyond could rely on Clemson turf pathologist Bruce Martin, Ph.D., to do just that. After parts of four decades helping golf course superintendents and others diagnose problems and find ways to overcome them, Martin, 64, will retire from Clemson at the end of June.
"His impact here and around the country has been immense," said Tim Kreger, executive director of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association. "There are hundreds of facilities here and nationwide that he has helped. One of the keys to the success of that program has been that he is not on campus. He's close to all the courses on the Grand Strand, and that has been critical."
Regardless of which companies were paying him to conduct product trials at the university's Pee Dee Research and Education Center 200 miles east of the main campus, Martin routinely kicked out advice and management programs that were designed to help superintendents save their jobs rather than help distributors sell more of Product X.
For example, his infamous Program 13 includes products from a half-dozen companies and for more than a decade has been widely recognized as the gold standard for helping superintendents manage creeping bentgrass in summer.
"I try to tell them what works best," Martin said. "It's like any medical protocol: If you don't do A-B-C, you're going to die. A-B-C might come from different companies, but your job in extension is to be unbiased. I joke that I try to piss off all the chemical companies equally. Nobody laughs at that."
Scott Ferguson, CGCS at Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, has known Martin for more than 20 years. In that time, Martin has helped him manage fairy ring outbreaks, nematode infestations and conducted trials for new products on the golf course.
It is the concern that Martin has for superintendents that Ferguson says he will miss most.
"Everyone in the Carolinas has leaned on him pretty hard over the years. He genuinely cares about our success," Ferguson said. "Most of the time, he answers the phone when you call him, and if he doesn't answer, he calls you back 100 percent of the time.
"He will be sorely missed."A native of Conway, Arkansas, Martin graduated from local Hendrix College with a degree in biology. He earned a master's in plant pathology from the University of Arkansas and a doctorate in the same discipline from North Carolina State.
He had been working at a research station in Connecticut when his wife was hired at the Pee Dee lab, so he spent his first year in South Carolina working at Horry-Georgetown. A year later, he was hired to work in tobacco and field crops at Clemson.
Because of the importance of tobacco to the local economy, all students in the NC State program learned something about diseases that affected it.
"So, I was prepared for that," he said. "Well, I wasn't totally ingornant. Let me put it that way."
At NC State he studied under Leon Lucas, Ph.D., whom he credits as greatly influencing his career in turf pathology. Lucas, who later became the staff agronomist for the Carolinas Golf Association, brought a sense of humility with him on site visits because he knew the only reason he was there was because the superintendent needed help.
"I visited a lot of golf courses with Leon," Martin said. "You don't realize when you're that young that what you are diagnosing makes a big difference to the superintendent, but it does. Leon helped me understand that."
Along with Larry Stowell, Ph.D., of PACE Turfgrass Research Institute, Martin was the first in 2001 to diagnose and name Rapid Blight (Labyrinthula terrestris), a disease in cool-season turf typically caused by irrigation water high in salts.
"(Bruce) saved the day when a new turfgrass disease was discovered in California," Stowell said. "At the time, the disease had not been observed elsewhere and pathologists around the country had difficulty seeing the organism using microscopes or isolating the pathogen from grass samples using conventional methods. It wasn't until duplicate samples of Poa trivialis arrived at both the PACE lab and Dr. Martin's lab that progress on the nature of the pathogen gained momentum and the disease was named 'rapid blight.' Bruce immediately initiated lab tests, genetic analyses and fungicide trials and quickly identified control options. After several more years and collaboration between Bruce and Drs. Mary Olsen and Robert Gilbertson at the University of Arizona, the causal organism was identified to be a unique and new terrestrial plant pathogen in the genus Labyrinthula. Bruce's knowledge, generosity, curiosity and professionalism were the key to the discovery of the cause and management of this important turfgrass disease."
When it came to other types of cool-season grasses and how to help them make it through summer, Martin was on speed dial for a lot of superintendents. Kreger of the Carolinas GCSA recalled one of his first visits to the Pee Dee lab.
"Boxes were stacked above my head," Kreger said. "When I asked what they were, he told me they were turf samples from superintendents all around the country."
Helping superintendents, regardless of their location, was the norm for Martin, who has been a speaker at events locally, regionally and nationwide for decades.
"He's always been right in the center of research on creeping bentgrass," said USGA Green Section agronomist Pat O'Brien. "If there was a hall of fame for turfgrass pathologists, he'd be in it."
Martin, however, isn't so sure. It's all part of the humble nature that has come to define his career.
I'm not a jokester. I appreciate a good joke, but I'm crappy at telling them. I'd rather impart knowledge."
For years, he taught with Rutgers' Bruce Clarke, Ph.D., at the annual Golf Industry Show. It was a long time, he said, before they determined what their audience wanted to hear, and how they wanted the information communicated to them.
"Sometimes you're too familiar with the top. I'd read through my reviews and they'd say things like "Martin needs to up his game.' I'd have to remember that they might be hearing something for the first time, but I'm telling it for the 20th time and you'd have to jack yourself up," Martin said. "That always bothered me. Some people are really good at speaking. I'm not a jokester. I appreciate a good joke, but I'm crappy at telling them. I'd rather impart knowledge.
"Finally, one year Bruce (Clarke) and I asked our (GIS) audience what they wanted us to talk about. Instead of trying to cover every disease, we'd cover the top 10. That made a huge difference in how we presented the material, and it made a huge difference in how they paid attention."
Much of that humility was learned through mistakes, which is yet another tidbit he tries to impart on superintendents.
"I've gotten my clock cleaned plenty of times, and I tell them that the same thing will happen to them once in a while," Martin said. "Once in a while, you run across someone who thinks they are infallible, but most understand this and want to learn how to recover from it."
Currently, Martin is part of the committee searching for his replacement, and although he will continue to consult for superintendents after he retires, he will stay equally busy with his hobbies that include bow hunting, fishing and chipping arrowheads out of pieces of flint.
"Talk about a waste of time, but it is something fun that I enjoy" he said. "I like to make something out of what used to be a rock. But flint is like glass, so you bleed a lot."
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