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Jim Reid doesn't wear his bulletproof vest to bed anymore. But he still keeps a bowie knife hidden in his boot, a Colt .45 stashed in his Corvette and a 9-mm Beretta concealed somewhere on his body. "I prefer my nine-millimeter Beretta to my .380 Beretta," Reid says. "The nine-millimeter holds 16 bullets. The .380 only holds 13. In my line of work you can never be too sure." You wouldn't think that finding and selling wayward golf balls was such a perilous profession.
As Reid tells it, there's enough danger and underwater intrigue in the golf ball-recycling business to sustain a number of James Bond sequels. "Basically, I profit from other people's mistakes," says Reid, whose outfit, Second Chance, based in Orlando, Fla., brings in $1.4 million a year. Reid worries about operations horning in on his turf. He worries about poachers raiding his ponds at night. He worries about alligators and sabotage and industrial espionage. "I used to be paranoid," he says, smoothing back his Elvislike pompadour. "But now I'm cured. Now I'm just...careful."
Reid, 46, arrived in Orlando nearly 20 years ago and took a job as a surveyor at Walt Disney World. One day 10 years ago, a friend of his who was the pro at a nearby country club told Reid he thought there might be a lot of balls in one of the course's water hazards. Reid dived in and discovered "the bottom of the pond was covered with golf balls," he recalls. "White gold!" Reid gave up surveying and plunged into ball salvaging. Soon his garage was crowded with Spaldings and Pinnacles and Maxflis and Top-Flites and Acushnets. He washed them in an old Maytag and resold them to the hapless souls who had hit them into the pond in the first place.
Now Reid and the 10 divers he employs comb ponds all over Florida, the state that boasts the most golf courses, and most lost balls, in the country. His divers recovered six million balls last year alone. Each ball is cleaned in a vat of mysterious, stain-removing chemicals. Reid is so leery of spies that he makes employees sign a five-page contract, promising never to reveal the solution's formula.
After immersion in Reid's golf dip, the balls are dried in plastic crates and graded and sorted according to brand and general condition. Then they're repainted, clear-coated and packed off to pro shops and driving ranges, where the cycle starts all over again. The average cost of the reconditioned balls is $325 per 500-ball box.
Actually, Second Chance is something of a misnomer, as most balls have more than two lives. The covering of choice used to be balata, a soft substance that would cut easily or cause balls to "go out of round" quickly. But several years ago manufacturers started using Surlyn, a synthetic substance that provides a harder, more durable jacket. Now even cut balls can be sandblasted and rehabilitated for use on a driving range. The lowest-grade cut balls are sold to cruise ships, from which they're hit into the ultimate water hazard.
Reid perfected his refinishing technique the way a hacker hones his stroke, through trial and error. He once let 500 range balls clunk around a cement mixer overnight. "They rolled and rolled and rolled," he says. "It took everything off." Including the better part of the dimples.
Unfortunately, he forgot to tell this to the golf pro to whom he sold the balls. The pro called him a few days later. Reid says he sounded perplexed. "What's with those balls?" asked the pro. "They've been loop-de-looping all afternoon."
Reid mentioned the cement mixer.
"No problem," said the pro. "It's been great for business. People have been signing up for lessons all morning."