SI Vault
Pat Ryan
May 19, 1969
Recovering lost balls from water hazards is a $1 million a week business, and a lot of it is done illegally. All an outlaw scavenger needs is a course with some ponds, scuba equipment, a moonless night—and nerve
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May 19, 1969

Golf's Underwater Underworld

Recovering lost balls from water hazards is a $1 million a week business, and a lot of it is done illegally. All an outlaw scavenger needs is a course with some ponds, scuba equipment, a moonless night—and nerve

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An Internal Revenue agent follows a man to a neon-lit tavern and picks up the bar conversation in snatches through the blare of jukebox rock. The agent notes the flash of bills, the diamond cuff links.

A telephone rings in a split-level. The anonymous caller offers information, for a price.

A Doberman paces outside his doghouse. Inside the doghouse is $1,500.

A man in swimming trunks wades into a lake. His hand strikes something below the surface. A body.

Guards with pistols lie on their bellies on a deserted golf course. They wait, high-powered binoculars searching the tree line.

Two frogmen work stealthily on a moonless night, moving through a tangle of weeds, past a dozing 1,100-pound sea cow. There is a dark swirl of water. Then silence.

Heroin smugglers? Jewel robbers? No. Just part of the multimillion-dollar business of scavenging golf balls. Every week about $1 million worth of golf balls are retrieved by professionals from the lakes and creeks of U.S. golf courses. In a year 150 million balls are recovered, and the competition to get them is cutthroat as men wade, grope, rake, scrape, disk, trap, vacuum and dredge. The professional golf-ball scavenger may be a young entrepreneur with a half-million-dollar company and a crew of Blue Cross-insured scuba divers who contracts with country clubs for scavenging rights but he must be ready to protect his franchises with pistols. Or he may be an ex-carpenter who travels up the coast with the warm season and cleans a club's creeks and lakes of balls once a year. He brings up 25,000, splits the profits with the golf pro and moves on. Or he may be a fly-by-night operator who makes a quick $500 by slipping into a course's water hazards after dark and stealing 1,500 balls in one night, leaving a bent wire fence as the only clue to the theft. This world of intrigue is often no farther from your clubhouse than a hooked tee shot. Look around carefully. Maybe down near the reeds in the lagoon by the 9th green—just where you dunked your approach yesterday. See the frogman's fins, the metallic gleam of his air tank?

Ball hawks will poor-mouth their profession, tell you it is a nickel-and-dime job. It is the swimming they like, or the outdoors, or the independence. That's what makes it all worthwhile. Honest. But a scavenger in North Carolina drives a Porsche and sends his daughter to private school on the profits he makes from operating in 27 states. A man like that can afford to be self-deprecating. The scavenging concession at Miami's Doral Country Club and Hotel, which has four courses and is building a fifth, is rumored to sell for $25,000 a year, although the club, too, strenuously denies that the figure is that high.

More forthright, or so big he can afford to be proud, is a former door salesman in Northern California. Unsatisfied with his divers merely groping in the mud for balls, he invented a vacuum cleaner that sucks the balls out of hazards. The machine outperforms divers 3 to 1 and is so rewarding that a San Jose businessman has offered $400,000 for the company and its mystery apparatus.

Water balls are marketed at cut rates (from 25� to $1 apiece for unscarred Titleists) in pro shops and sporting-goods stores, and are sold in bulk to driving ranges, cruise ships and the U.S. Navy. During a year seamen hit hundreds of thousands of 3� and 4� balls off carrier decks. Companies that wholesale used golf balls are listed with Dun & Bradstreet. Increasingly, the profit potential of scavenging is attracting college-educated men with degrees in philosophy, engineering and business administration. They pay lawyers and advertising fees, and consult with biologists about pollution in water hazards, chemists about solutions for cleaning golf balls and university labs and zoos about their weed problems.

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