Diving for used golf balls: the most dangerous job in golf
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."
Whatever he's doing, nearly an hour into his dive at Lexington Oaks, it's happening deep down, near the center of the pond that guards the right side of the dogleg-right 15th. You can tell as much from his bubble pattern. When Stanfield works a hazard, he does so in concentric circles, starting by scavenging the shallow edges -- territory often picked clean by those he calls "footlookers" -- and gradually moving toward more fertile depths.
That he's been under so long is cause for optimism. Earlier in the day, Stanfield plunged into another, smaller pond on the 18th hole. He surfaced minutes later, frowning: Nighthawkers had beaten him there.
But now he's likely reaping the kind of healthy harvest that can net him up to a thousand balls an hour. It helps that this pond is expansive and situated on a slicer's line of flight. It also doesn't hurt that a 9-foot gator lives here, an irritable creature with the habit of ramming divers in the ribs. "Feels like you're getting slammed in the side with a two-by-four," Stanfield says.
So far this afternoon, the gator hasn't harassed Stanfield, and it's hard to say which party should be more relieved. A few years back, when Stanfield was diving a Tampa course called Pebble Creek, an even larger gator tried to make a meal of him, clamping down on his right shoulder and whirling in a spiral toward the depths. Gouging the gator's eyes and pounding on its snout, Stanfield freed himself and summoned a trapper. The animal's head, gapemouthed and lacquered, resides today in Stanfield's office, in a low-slung business park just outside Tampa.
The space is barely big enough for Stanfield's desk, but it opens to an airy warehouse piled high with wooden pallets, all jammed with balls awaiting renewed life. Reviving them is tedious, low-tech labor. A counting rack, designed to accommodate 300 balls, is as close as Stanfield's workplace comes to automation. From it the balls are dumped into a pair of cleansing plunge baths, wiped dry with a cloth, and then hand-sorted according to condition and brand -- a mind-numbing task that Stanfield shares with his brother, his son-in-law and a rotating band of part-time employees. On a busy day, Stanfield processes 30,000 balls. The more, the merrier. His goal is to grow the number he handles from 8 million to 20 million a year.
To that end, Stanfield says he puts in 60 to 80 hours a week. But diving for balls is just one of his duties, and he needs assistance to get the haul he wants. In addition to the balls he purchases from middlemen around the country, Stanfield relies on independent divers to scour the 30 or so Florida courses with which he works.
In a field as unglamorous as golf-ball diving, reliable help is hard to come by, even if committed divers can earn up to $100,000 a year. And that's not counting what the black market allows. Earlier this year, to cite just one example of a rampant practice, three men and a woman, all from Michigan, were arrested for allegedly stealing 8,000 balls from ponds at two private courses in Pennsylvania, one of them the prestigious Aronimink Golf Club.
Trawling for Titleists was never Stanfield's childhood dream. In his early 20s, he was earning his keep as an auto mechanic when a friend, knowing that Stanfield loved scuba-diving, asked for help pulling golf balls from a pond.
"The idea seemed silly to me, but I did it as a favor," Stanfield says. "A few hours later, when I'd made a week's salary in a day, I started thinking, Hmmm. From that point on, I haven't looked back."
In his early years, as he built his golf ball business, Stanfield also worked as a sheriff's deputy and as a correctional officer in a Georgia state prison, where an unruly inmate once stabbed him in the cheek. That wound required stitches, but it wasn't his worst. Some 15 years ago, emerging from a pond, Stanfield impaled his foot on his spear of cedar wood, and the resulting infection nearly led to amputation.
"It gives you a bit of pause when you're in the hospital and the doctor draws a line on your ankle where he's going to cut," Stanfield says. "But you can't spend your days worrying about things like that."
Besides, he's heard plenty of moreharrowing tales. The dreariest, of course, involve the drownings. But survivor stories are unsettling, too. Stanfield's colleague Brad Perkins, of Florida-based Rainbow Diving Company, lost the tip of a finger to a snapping turtle, and he's been chased from the water by 13-foot gators.
Then there was the case of a rookie diver whom Perkins hired in the late '90s to scour for him at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, a Sanibel Island course with water hazards on nearly every hole. Down the young man went, and there he stayed -- for a troubling amount of time. Ed Lockard, then the Dunes head pro, recalls the worrisome wait, which finally ended near dusk with the diver on a mad dash from the water. "He's stripping equipment off bit by bit -- mask, gloves, regulator, fins -- leaving a trail of gear on the way to the parking lot," Lockard says.
Little did the diver know that it was alligator- mating season: He'd spent several hours stuck on the bottom, pinned down by a gator's amorous advance. (Traumatized, he never dived for balls again.)
Back at Lexington Oaks, still no sign of gators. But, at last, a sign of Stanfield: large bubbles break the surface, followed by the top of Stanfield's hooded head. He staggers toward shore. Once the Swamp Thing, he now looks more like a sopping Santa, a sack full of goodies slung over his shoulder. From experience, he knows that his cargo weighs roughly 100 pounds and contains around 1,000 balls.
If the fates are smiling, many of those balls will be Titleist Pro V1s -- the industry gold standard, the base currency on which prices get set. Though his contracts differ with every golf course, Stanfield pays course operators an average of 10 cents for every ball he collects. At a high-end property, Stanfield might expect top-market balls to compose nearly 20 percent of his total haul. But at a place like Lexington Oaks, popular among retirees on fixed incomes, that number is closer to 10 percent.
In that way, golf-ball diving is an economic indicator; the quality and quantity of balls recovered reflects how freely people feel to spend. But the work is also underwater archaeology, a search for relics from another time. Scott Lokken, a veteran diver and owner of the Golf Ball Shop in Hudson, Wisc., says he still finds balls, like the Titleist Professional, that fell out of fashion in the era of steel shafts and persimmon. Unlike Stanfield, Lokken dives without a tank, drawing air instead from a surface compressor that floats, dinghy-like, just above him, pumping oxygen to him through a tube. Going tankless, Lokken says, leaves him freer to maneuver and to haul more balls with each dive. Plus, he says, it's safer, with a lower chance of snags. (The safest retrieval method is a roller, a mechanical dervish that churns up balls while its operators stand onshore.)
No matter how they're pulled from their watery lies, pond-dwelling balls are a motley population. Some rise to the surface looking clownishly distorted. Others appear good as new.
How well they perform is a separate question, one that arouses partisan debate. Ask a new-golf-ball retailer and they'll likely tell you that any ball pulled from a pond is an inferior product. Divers, on the other hand, say those days are over, that the modern ball, with its Surlyn cover and polymer coating, is a far cry from its balata forebear, which cut like butter and deteriorated quickly in the drink. According to divers, most changes brought on by water today are cosmetic and unrelated to performance.
Just don't look for science to support that claim. Unbiased studies of the effects of water on the latest, greatest balls are difficult to come by. The USGA , which conducts so many tests on so much equipment, keeps no data. Nor do manufacturers say much on the matter. A Titleist spokesperson declined to comment on any aspect of the used-golf-ball market.
Standing now in ankle-deep water, Stanfield glances back, then ducks into a crouch: a foursome has arrived at the 15th tee. It's midafternoon, well into a long round. The first player waggles, and bangs a bleeder that clears the pond by no more than a foot. The next man up is not so lucky. There's the dull thud of impact and a cry of "fore" as the ball sets off on a weak trajectory, ballooning up, up, up, and then plunging toward the hazard. It lands with a kerplunk that to Stanfield sounds more like a ka-ching.
He gives a friendly wave and says, out of earshot of the unhappy golfer, "Thank you very much. That's another one for me."
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.