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Diving for used golf balls: the most dangerous job in golf

Wes Stanfield
Angus Murray
Stanfield surfaces after a recent dive near Tampa, Fla. On a good day, he can collect 1,000 balls in an hour.

For a guy who doesn't play golf -- or even one who does -- Wes Stanfield will go a long way for a golf ball. At the moment, he's wading through the swampy shallows of a pond on a par 4 at Lexington Oaks Golf Club, north of Tampa, Fla., that isn't just a hazard to players on the tee. Its chemical-laced waters, laden with bacteria that cause lockjaw, are home to snapping turtles, poisonous snakes and a feisty alligator that's big enough to drag a man into a death roll.

Not that Stanfield can't hold his own with gators; the last time one attacked him, he kept its head as a souvenir. But he wouldn't dip his toe, much less submerge his body, in these murky depths if the pond didn't also double as a graveyard, a resting place for a thousand wayward shots.

Up to his waist now, near a patch of reeds, Stanfield wipes a forearm across his brow. It's a warm Florida day, shortsleeve weather. But Stanfield, 48, with the burly build and no-nonsense bearing of the prison guard he once was, is squeezed into a wetsuit, a tank on his back, dragging a large mesh bag behind him, looking like the Swamp Thing crossed with Jacques Cousteau.

His foot falls on something. Groping in the muck, he pulls up a muddy Top-Flite. "Money in my pocket," he says, dropping the ball into his sack. "And a lot more where that came from." With that, he dons his mask and disappears, down into a world of pesticides and predators, a trail of bubbles rising in his wake.

In golf, one man's loss is another man's gain, and that other man is often Stanfield, whose livelihood hinges on small misfortunes. Of the estimated 100 million missing golf balls recovered in this country every year (roughly three times as many never get found), 8 million make their way to Stanfield, some purchased from middle-men as far away as California, but many others dredged up by Stanfield himself, from dark recesses where golfers in their right mind fear to tread.

Each of his finds amounts to a tiny profit, rarely more than a few cents a ball. In total, though, they represent a robust bounty for a modest player in an industry that has spread from golf's black-market margins into the multimillion-dollar mainstream.

That golf-ball diving today involves large sums makes it the province of large commercial interests, many with national and international reach. It is not uncommon for a mis-struck Pro V1 rescued from a water hazard in, say, Palm Springs, to be sold for 20 cents to a dealer in Atlanta, before resurfacing in a pro shop with a $2 price tag.

Stanfield has a hand in foreign markets. But as the owner of S&S Dive Services, the mom-and-pop Tampa-area outfit that he's run since the late '80s, his imprint is relatively small. An independent operator, he is one of a dwindling few in the United States who have resisted buyouts from larger concerns.

What he's holding out for is another matter. Golf-ball diving is unforgiving work, physically demanding and rife with perils. Stories abound of divers who have drowned, doomed by their own errors, or faulty equipment, or tangles with fishing lines or fallen trees. According to news reports, at least four golf-ball divers have drowned in this country in the last four years alone, ranging from a 75-year-old man in Florida with more than a half century of diving experience to a relative newcomer in his mid-20s whose body was recovered from the water surrounding the famous floating island green at Coeur d'Alene resort in Idaho.

Occupational hazards are everywhere. But nowhere in this country are the dangers and discomforts greater than they are in western Florida, where Stanfield works. Underwater visibility is next to nothing, the heat turns ponds into petri dishes, and a frightening 10-footer is a reptile, not a downhill putt.

"This has never been an easy business, and it's only gotten more competitive," says Paul Lovelace, a golf-ball diver and the owner of Golf Ball Paul's, a retailer in Kansas City, Kan. "But those guys down there who dive in that mucky, nasty water with the gators? Those guys are absolutely nuts."

Then there are the problems every operator faces, like poachers, or "nighthawkers," who clean out water hazards without course permission; to say nothing of the economic slump (fewer rounds played means fewer golf balls lost). Increased competition from online golf-ball discounters has also cut into Stanfield's profit margins. Today, Stanfield says, he makes less per golf ball than he did when he launched his business 25 years ago. His solution? Larger volume: searching wider, diving deeper.

"It's addictive," he says, "like treasure hunting." It's a living, too.

"When you work in this business," he adds, "you learn pretty quickly what a man will do to pay his bills."

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