Everything is perfect on the tee of the par 3. The 6-iron in Hank's hands feels great. His favorite club and the slight breeze from the right dispel any thought of the ball leaking toward the hazard. He takes the club back and rips through the ball, finishing high and proud. The white gem soars toward the green. Its destiny is sealed. The sidespin takes over and it turns right toward the pond.
“Not again,” he mutters as the ball splashes down. It slowly settles next to a pair of new balls left by the previous group.
It's one more ball joining the millions lost in the world this year — one more waiting for a golf ball recovery specialist to reap and resell.
Thousands of balls plunge into water hazards at all types of courses around the United States. As they sink to the bottom, the potential profit for courses and recovery companies rises. But a golf ball under several feet of water, half-buried in silt, surrounded by weeds and guarded by a water moccasin or alligator is only potentially profitable. The trick is getting your hands on it — and the 5,000 others nearby.
The methods of recovery vary depending on the size of the water hazard, water depth and the company doing the recovery. Most superintendents don't like to handle the recovery themselves, so a thriving industry has developed over time to service the courses with magnetic lakes that wayward golf balls can't resist.
At Balmoral Golf Course in Battle Lake, Minn., owner John Young has divers come in to service the four ponds on his grounds.
“It's an efficient way to get those balls,” he says. The divers split the balls 50-50 with the course, leaving Young with a desirable product to resell. “I really look at our used golf ball sales as our highest profit item,” he says. “There's no cost.” He adds that top-of-the-line golf balls like the Titleist Pro V1 cost him about $34 a dozen and he sells them for $44. He makes an extra $2 a dozen on reclaimed balls.
Collecting sunken balls is time-consuming and other responsibilities take priority, so like many grounds maintenance professionals, Young has given up dabbling in reclaiming balls with his metal collection rake.
“We actually have one of those,” he adds. “I'd rather let the company come in and do it and just keep half.”
John DePriest, General Manager at Sunset Hills in Edwardsville, Ill., only has the two ponds at his course serviced every few years since they are not in play for most golfers. But ball recovery was a big factor when he was at Knoxville, Tenn. The course had a deal with Rawhide Golf Ball Company out of Fort Branch, Ind. The Rawhide team would come in and gather more than 20,000 golf balls a year. Rawhide paid them a flat rate for each ball. The going rate varies by course and condition of the ball. If a split is done, getting clean balls back means a lower percentage returned to the course.
Typically, a course gets a nickel to a dime per ball, depending on the brand. Offers of more than a dime per ball are likely too good to believe, veterans in the business say; sometimes unscrupulous recovery teams reduce counts unfairly to counter-balance the higher price offered. That hurts margins of the companies that play by the book and can cause distrust between superintendents and recovery companies.
Among superintendents there is a widely-held belief that at private and semi-private courses the customers don't have interest in reclaimed balls. The balls tend to sell better at public courses.
“We call them experienced balls,” says Tom Yaeger, golf director at Niagra County Golf Course in Lockport, N.Y. Each year 20,000 to 25,000 balls are recovered at his 18-hole course. His customers love the bargain price of three balls for $2. “It's the cheapest three balls that we sell. They're always looking for the cheapest we sell.” Many superintendents at high-end courses frequented by players with more to spend hold a different attitude about used balls.
“Their customer has much more in their wallet,” says veteran golf ball diver Steve Helms. “They don't want to be penny pinching.” Some top courses do not sell reclaimed balls at all — not when status is what they are really marketing. It doesn't make sense for golfers playing at an exclusive club to see a dozen water balls on sale for $12 next to Titleists going for $56. Many of those clubs get a higher flat rate for the premium balls a company pulls from their hazards. Those gems end up being sold in bulk to other resellers or on the Internet.
At Rawhide, General Manager Larry Krohn says the agreements they make with superintendents are tailored to the courses' needs. Rawhide will pay cash per ball, generally 5 to 6 cents. Sometimes it's a 50-50 split the course favors. The service might involve cleaning the balls for the course or even putting a stripe on them for driving range use. The payment per ball runs 7 to 8 cents on courses that yield a large number of premium balls that sell well.
On the tee of the next par 4, Hackin' Hank pulls out his driver. He tees up a Pro V1. Despite knowing that he's drowned a dozen balls in the small but deep pond to the right recently, he takes a mighty cut. This one darts off the tee and hits the ground 10 yards in front of the lake, bounces once and becomes a miniature white submarine. “Great,” he mumbles. “Just stay in there forever.” Still, he tees up another.
Luckily for the industry, new materials are making the extraction of balls less dependent on timing. Balata golf balls of yesterday would discolor easily and lose distance after being in the water for an extended period of time. But today's sturdier high-tech golf balls don't suffer the same fate while under water for months.
“The new synthetic materials they use, it doesn't seem to hurt them,” says DePriest. That means a course can go a long time without servicing and still garner a nice load of valuable balls.
A well-placed water hazard fronting a par 3 can suck in thousands of balls a month, superintendents say. Krohn notes that the average courses yield 10,000 to 12,000 balls to his team of guys working with a pair of tractors and a six-foot-long, 300-pound roller. He advises that ponds with new liners should not be rolled until a couple years of silt has built a protective layer. The number of balls relates directly to the optimistic nature of many golfers. He says the par-4 18th hole at a nearby course has a dogleg with an adjacent pond that begs to be cut off so you are closer on the approach shot. The more you cut off, the more you need to carry.
“They clear the water on the first try and then say, ‘You know, I can make that’ and they put another ball down.”
All balls recovered are graded for quality and slotted appropriately, Krohn says.
“We retrieve them, we clean them and we process them,” Krohn explains. On a given day about 4,000 balls are sorted into 20 different bins at Rawhide. Another 3,500 of lower quality are striped for sale to driving ranges. Rawhide owner Mark Schmitt sells much of Rawhide's product to ranges and clubs. Last year Rawhide tallied about $400,000 in sales, Krohn says.
Underwater Golf Ball Recovery Company was founded 15 years ago by diver Steve Helms. His best catch was 12,200 balls in one day of diving. Last year he netted over 1.2 million balls. Helms uses whatever method the water dictates.
RAKING IT IN
Hank waggles his driver on the 18th tee. He launches a drive at a sliver of fairway 260 yards out next to a small pond. The ball lands on a hill and caroms toward the pond. It manages to find the bottom of a hazard that's deep and narrow.
“A large apparatus doesn't do well in a confined area but a diver would,” he explains. “I do well by putting together a whole slew of golf courses and attacking them.” Helms has about 80 accounts with Texas courses. Sometimes he uses a large roller that cost $2,000 to make at a machine shop. The wenches and related overhead to start him out tallied another $4,000.
Smaller gear can cost less initially, such as that made by Force Manufacturing in Lake Villa, Ill. The metal rakes that make up about 15 percent of the company's sales are designed for use from the shore. President Russ Valin says the 14-inch wide rake they sell for $245 can scoop up 30 balls per pull.
The company got into making lake rakes two years ago after golf ball recovery entrepreneur John Korabick requested they make one based on his design. The lightweight aluminum will not rust and has holes to filter out water and debris.
“I finally had to start asking some questions,” Valin said. Before they were done the first unit brought in 100,000 balls that season. “It's pretty non-invasive,” Valin says. “Even if you've got irrigation pipes you can back it off.” Korabick says last year he raked in 400,000 balls working one of 15 courses every few weeks. Pulling in balls from the shore may be quick, but sorting is the most time-consuming part, Valin adds.
Given the margin on recovered golf balls, a little patience can be very rewarding.
Michael Coleman is a freelance writer who resides in Olathe, Kan.
METHODS OF RECOVERY
While there are a million ways to drown a golf ball — shanking, blading, topping and simply hacking — there are only a handful of ways to recover that same ball from its watery grave.
According to experts in the field, the methods of recovery vary depending on the volume of balls and the features of the area being explored. Large, relatively flat-bottomed water hazards that have few or no obstructions can be harvested using large metal rollers. This approach is good for harvesting the shallower water because it's faster than diving and collecting by hand. Rolling a pond is done by putting a golf cart or small tractor with a wench on each side of the water. The roller, often five or six feet wide, is connected to each cart by a cable spanning the lake. The crew wench it across and if the catch is good, they empty it. Often it takes several passes to fill a roller capable of holding hundreds of balls.
Areas close to the bank that are covered with balls can be done with a metal rake designed for the task. Attached to a pole that is 12 feet or longer, the rake will allow someone standing on dry ground to plunder the most likely area to have a concentration of balls — on a par 3 for instance.
Scuba diving is also a very popular approach. The gear is inexpensive and patience is the primary factor in finding a lot of balls. However, rookie divers don't fare well in the zero visibility waters on a golf course. Divers instantly muddy the waters as they enter and working at night is often necessary to stay out of range of golfers. That makes for a challenging task of staying oriented enough to work an entire pond without covering the same area of it repetitively. Most divers work with gloves on as they feel around the bottom for their harvest.
Another method involves boating over a pond while pulling a roller. That approach allows some bigger areas to be covered that might be difficult with a roller linked to carts on land.
Whatever the method, the goal is always the same: finding the most balls possible.
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