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IN GOLF, RECYCLING IS A PROFITABLE INDUSTRY
Franz Lidz
May 14, 1990
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.
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May 14, 1990

In Golf, Recycling Is A Profitable Industry

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Reid has clients in most states and dozens of countries in Asia and Europe. But his domain is dwarfed by that of another Floridian, Jerry Gunderson. "Jerry is like Idi Amin," Reid says with sly amusement. "He wants to control the world."

He means the world of used golf balls. Gunderson once approached Reid with an offer to buy Second Chance. International Golf, Gunderson's company, is headquartered in a sprawling Deerfield Beach, Fla., complex that's ringed with barbed wire. Security is so tight that you have to be buzzed into the boss's office.

At 55, Gunderson is an effusive fellow with a firm handshake and a belly shaped like an outsized Hogan 392. His business card is stamped with the motto "No fuss, no muss, leave the golf ball diving to us." He shells out about $500,000 a year for exclusive scouring rights to 600 courses from Maine to California, including almost every TPC layout. On a good day his divers can pull up as many as 1,500 balls. He says the water hazards on the right side of the fairway yield the most balls. "Most golfers slice shots," he says. "Very few hook them."

Gunderson was 12 when he waded into his first pond, at a municipal course in Lake Worth, Fla. He laid out his booty on a bench and sold the entire haul. "I may have been a little too industrious," he says. "They put a detective on my tail and caught me in the act." So he struck a deal with the club pro, who paid him 8 cents for each recovered ball.

He paid his way through Florida State by tending a small weekend circuit of courses in Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Atlanta. Fraternity brothers who wanted a piece of Gunderson's action had to pass a test. "I made them stand under a freezing shower for 20 minutes," he says. Few survived the initiation.

Before investing in scuba gear, Gunderson groped around in the cold, silty sludge with his toes. "In the old days I walked into a lot of glass jugs," he recalls. "I'd yank my toes out and my feet would be slashed. The great thing today is that there are no bottles. Now it's all cans."

But the hazards faced by contemporary ball hawks are far more formidable. "You can't make out anything," says Reid, who was once singed by lightning while submerged. "Your hands begin to see, like a blind man reading Braille." Two of Reid's divers have been bitten by alligators or whacked by their tails; another surrendered a finger to a snapping turtle. Another lost an eye when he popped out of the water and into the trajectory of a three wood. Others have drowned.

Besides balls and clubs, divers dredge up all sorts of nongolfing debris, such as 10-speed bicycles, tire irons and X-rated videocassettes. One ball retriever in Ohio found a dead man with his feet in cement blocks and his hands chained behind him. "I doubt that the victim was caught poaching balls," says Gunderson. "The punishment seems too severe."

Poachers, known as nighthawks, are the recycling trade's greatest handicap. By raking away balls, they rake off profits. "The most common kind are the retirees who buy $300,000 homes along the water's edge," he says. "They feel they're entitled to the balls, but they're not. They're pirates, in my view."

And how do ball manufacturers view recyclers? After all, a dozen of Gunderson's Titleists cost about half the price of new ones. "They leave us alone," he says. "They realize there's room enough for both of us." The used-ball market, he says, is just a little dimple on the face of an industry that sells 190 million new balls a year.

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