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Bruce Martin’s retirement leaves one less doctor for Carolina golf courses

As he prepares for his retirement in June, the longtime Clemson plant pathologist made his last appearance at the Carolinas GCSA conference and trade show last week.

| | Originally posted on Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News

Bruce Martin (center) is preparing for retirement after 30 years as a plant pathologist at Clemson. Photo courtesy of S.B. Martin

For the past 30 years, Bruce Martin has dealt with incessant death and disease.

In each case, he has resurrected his subject and found a successful treatment or cure.

As a result, he has saved numerous golf courses on the Grand Strand.

As the plant pathologist at the Clemson Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence, Martin has been invaluable to the Strand golf industry, and he’s retiring after 30 years in late June.

Whenever a golf course superintendent encountered dying grass and didn’t have an answer, they would get a sample to Martin, and he’d invariably research a cure that would save the course’s condition and subsequently its financial stability.

“I don’t know that you can even put words to say what Bruce has meant to the Carolinas and Myrtle Beach area, but I know he has helped me out tremendously,” said Randy Allen, past president of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association and former longtime superintendent at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club and with Burroughs & Chapin Co. “You could run a sample up there and he’d pretty much tell you what the deal was as soon as he got it.

“He gave you the information you needed to get them back in shape sooner. It didn’t really matter if it was going to take three months to get it fixed, because you’re probably going to be out of a job by then anyway. He would help you out and get them fixed as soon as possible. The information he could relay to you was just amazing.”

Martin is on the Grand Strand this week as a seminar speaker during the annual CGCSA Conference and Show at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. He was honored by those he has helped during an event at Myrtlewood Golf Club on Sunday night.

Martin, 63, has been at the forefront of his research to point of naming some of the diseases golf courses now battle.

“He’s world-renowned, truly world-renowned as a leader in his field,” said Joel Ratcliff, past CGCSA president and former superintendent at International World Tour Golf Links. “He’s the best at what he does, and he has the ability to relate to us like none of the rest of them.

“... When Arnold Palmer calls Bruce (regarding Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Florida), you know he’s the guy to call.”

Martin is a native of Conway, Ark., and earned a biology degree at Hendrix liberal arts college there. He initially planned to get into medicine, but chose not to pursue that career after earning his undergraduate degree. He became interested in plants in his final two years at Hendrix.

He was painting houses after graduation when he applied for a technician’s position in forest pathology at the University of Arkansas. He didn’t get the job, but he was asked whether he instead wanted to enter graduate school, and he went on to earn a master’s degree in plant pathology at Arkansas and later a Ph.D. in turf projects from NC State.

“I was tumbleweeding through life, and me and my buddies were making enough painting houses to keep ourselves in beer and not much more, and this guy called me up and asked if I’d thought of graduate school,” Martin recalled. “... It has certainly been interesting. It has been challenging, and there are a lot of really super-smart people in the research, so it was nice to be part of that system.”

Martin came to South Carolina as a professor at Horry Georgetown Technical College. He was working as a scientist at a Connecticut experiment station when his wife, Cynthia Green, a cotton geneticist he met when both were pursuing doctorates at NC State, was hired at the Pee Dee station.

Martin looked for work in the area, and he was referred to then HGTC agronomy program head Ed Zahler. In the 18 months or so Martin taught at the Conway school, he set up a small diagnostics laboratory to study grasses and disease for area superintendents, and carried that work to the Pee Dee center, where he was hired to predominantly study field crops such as tobacco, cotton and corn, but also turf.

“(HGTC) was a great place to learn, kind of on-the-job training,” Martin said.

Turf became his primary field of research after studies showed golf’s economic value to the state of South Carolina and Clemson applied for research grants from the state for turf. The requests were denied multiple times before the program was finally funded and Martin persuaded Clemson to limit his work to turf. “Clemson knew the turf industry wanted more attention from it,” Martin said. “Golf courses were being built right and left down here in the ’80s.”

In addition to solving problems with grasses throughout the U.S., he has been summoned to numerous countries, including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, England and Spain, to solve issues.

For several reasons, the Grand Strand is an area where it’s particularly difficult to maintain healthy grass. Its climate falls in a transition area for warm- and cool-weather grasses, which creates stress on both at different times of the year.

“Warm-season grasses go dormant in the winter, and that’s actually a stress in a way,” Martin said. “If you get a disease before they go into dormancy, you’re going to look at that disease all winter long, because you can’t heal it up. It’s like a having a scab you can’t heal because you’re not growing.”

The coastal soil is sandy, which allows for drainage but also washes away soil nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, calcium and phosphorus that are crucial for grass growth. “You have to spoon-feed them with those nutrients, and that’s a real art and a science,” Martin said. “Superintendents mostly have it figured out I think, but it still makes it a challenge.”

The area is often hit by tropical storms and hurricanes that batter and flood courses, and because a lot of area courses were built within housing developments, trees that have matured over the years on adjacent homeowner property restrict the sun and airflow that help bermudagrass grow. “That’s the kiss of death on bermudagrass,” Martin said.

He has occasionally been stumped, including a condition he and a researcher in California named “Rapid Blight” that hit Strand courses in the early 2000s. It was killing the overseed grasses rye and Poa trivialis. The cause was eventually found to be an organism that favored high salt content in water, and the area was in the midst of a drought at the time. “That one was tough, but we figured out how to control it before we figured out what the organism was, because we just started trying things and we got lucky and found an experimental fungicide at the time and a couple other things that worked decent,” Martin said.

“It’s mostly the same old bad actors we’ve known about, what happens though is weather conditions change, and I am a believer in climate change ... and what that did was run bentgrass out of here. That big change ushered in the ultradwarf bermudagrasses, then we find out those grasses are really susceptible to disease, more so than the old cultivars of bermuda, so here we go again with diseases like take-all root rot. We’ve had some epidemics down here that have been difficult to control. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last couple years, but there’s work to be done.”

Martin believes many diseases have flourished recently because of the floods and hurricanes that have plagued the Carolinas since October 2015. “We’ve had terrible epidemics of pythium and things that I had never seen in 30 years — just devastating epidemics,” Martin said. “Big weather events like that sort of change everything.”

In retirement, Martin plans to do contract research in a lab in his home in Florence for companies involved in the golf industry, and doesn’t plan to be a consultant. “To me, a consultant is on somebody else’s clock, and I want to be on my clock,” Martin said.

Strand courses with grass issues will now likely turn to Bert McCarty, a Clemson agronomist based in Clemson, or NC State plant pathologist and associate professor Jim Kerns. Plant pathologists deal largely with fungi, bacteria, microbes and parasites that attack grasses, while agronomists deal more with plant nutrition, soil and weed science, though the fields often intersect.

But the guy with all the answers who was always a phone call or short drive away will no longer be there to save the day, though Martin believes his position in Florence will be filled.

“What always amazed me about Bruce, even as busy as he was — and I mean Bruce was a national figure, he wasn’t just a Carolinas guy — it didn’t matter when you called him, he always called back and would probably come and see you within a week,” Allen said. “I can’t believe he’s riding into the sunset.”