Monday, January 14, 2013

Golf ball diving. Not a timid man's game.

Wes Stanfield is his name, and retrieving used golf balls from water hazards on golf courses is his game.  In the latest issue of Golf Magazine, reporter Josh Sens tells the story of this man, his job, and the economy built up around his very unique line of work.

According to Sens, Stanfield is "the lifeblood of the used golf ball industry."  Used golf ball industry?  Really?

It turns out that with enough golfers and a high enough demand for less expensive balls, there is indeed an industry to collect and refurbish golf balls that find their way into the ponds and water traps on golf courses around the land.

What makes Wes Stanfield so interesting is that he's making his money by working the Florida courses, going into water hazards to fish out balls that may have found their way into the muck under "chemical-laced waters, laden with bacteria that cause lockjaw, ... home to snapping turtles, poisonous snakes and an alligator big enough to drag a man into his death roll".

Finding and refurbishing golf balls can earn someone $100,000 a year.  Of the approximately 100 million golf balls retrieved every year (three times that number are never found), about 8 million make their way to Stanfield, either through purchases he makes from California middle-men, but more often than not through his own finds.  With profit margins at only a couple of cents per ball, the way to make money is on volume.  On a busy day, Stanfield processes 30,000 balls.

For used golf balls, the industry gold standard is a Titletist Pro V1, which Sens calls "the base currency on which prices get set".  At a high end course, Stanfield will expect to find more of them in the mix.  On a course destined for use by retirees, fewer.  Meanwhile, with the recession's impact still being felt, fewer rounds of golf have been played overall, which means fewer bad shots into the lake, fewer balls to be recovered.

But that only speaks to the financial incentives.  In an industry in which four golf ball divers have died in the last four years, through bad judgment, faulty equipment or just bad luck, the idea that you might run into an alligator while trying to avoid the fishing line and downed tree limbs underwater is hard to imagine.  But Stanfield has done just that.  While diving a few years ago, a gator latched onto him intent on bringing him to the bottom of the pond before making a meal out of him.  With a gouge to the eyes, and a knock on the snout, Stanfield freed himself, found a trapper, and decided to keep the gator's head as a shellacked souvenir.

Josh Sens' piece "What Lies Beneath" is in the February 2013 issue of Golf Magazine.

And here's an interesting look at the life, and second life, of a golf ball:
  1. A Pro V1 ball gets purchased new from a retailer in Southern California: $4.00
  2. Sliced into a pond at Palm Springs
  3. Recovered by a diver who pays the course $0.10 to keep the ball
  4. Sold to a used ball dealer for $0.17
  5. Purchased by a golf ball refinisher for $0.40
  6. Repackaged and resold at a retail shop as "recycled and recoated" for: $2.00