`Hook' or `slice' good business; Charlton golf ball diving firm retrieves errant shots from ponds.
It's often said that a bad day of golf is better than a good day of work.
"But for us," said Forest Rothchild, owner of Golf Ball Diving in Charlton, "a bad day of golf is a good day of work."
Rothchild and his five divers slip on their scuba diving gear, retrieve errant shots out of golf course ponds and ship the golf balls to a recycling firm in Texas to be refurbished.
Rothchild said his divers, who work as independent contractors, uncover about million golf balls a year. One of those divers, George Keller of Rutland, found nearly 400,000 last year.
"When I say George is my machine," Rothchild said, "that is not an exaggeration."
"I tell people," Keller said, "I'm a professional golf ball reclamation technician. I don't tell them that I climb around in the mud and the muck and the goo to find golf balls."
In 2-1/2 hours on May 28, Keller fished about 2,000 golf balls out of a pond in front of the elevated fifth tee at Holden Hills. The day before he pulled roughly the same amount out of the same pond.
"Me, I'm loving this," Keller said. "My wife thinks I'm out of my mind."
On any given day, about 100,000 golf balls sit in Rothchild's storage unit on Millbury Street in Worcester before they're shipped to Texas.
Rothchild, 37, and Keller, 50, are both certified scuba divers who met through a friend who belonged with Keller to the Deep Six Divers club that meets at Inland Divers in Leicester. Rothchild read an advertisement about golf ball diving in a scuba diving magazine and started his own golf ball diving company in 2007.
"I figured," he explained, "if I'm already getting in dirty, nasty water, how can I expand on this and make money with it?"
Many of the Central Massachusetts golf courses were already under contract to other golf ball divers, but Rothchild lined up Holden Hills, Bedrock, Tatnuck and Townsend Ridge. His company services about 150 courses from Maine to Maryland. PG Professional Golf in Sugarland, Texas, which recycled more than 40 million golf balls last year, pays the divers and the courses a fee for each reuseable ball, then refurbishes them. The balls are eventually sold to the public at Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods, BJs and online at lostgolfballs.com. Four grades of used balls sell for half the price of new and less.
Keller has found broken glass, signs, golf clubs and flag sticks in ponds.
"Today, I found a full bottle of beer," Keller said after exiting the pond on the fifth hole at Holden Hills. "God knows how long it's been here."
Snapping turtles and snakes can be a concern, but Keller was most disturbed by a koi, an ornamental carp, of 3-1/2 to 4 feet that swam up to him in a pond at Laurel View CC in Hamden, Conn.
"It scared the bejeebers out of me," he admitted.
Rothchild finds about 100 clubs a year in ponds, mostly putters and wedges, and gives them away. He's also found shoes, a doll and a frog skeleton. He's heard of divers finding guns, even golf carts.
It's usually too dark in ponds for divers to see much of anything.
"We wear gauges on our wrists," Rothchild said, "that tell us how deep we are, but unless we have them pressed against our masks generally you can't even read them. The visibility gets that bad."
A pond may be clear, but once something is touched silt stirs up and you can't see. So divers find golf balls by feel, moving their fingers across the bottom of the pond. The deeper they dig, the older the ball usually is.
Because of the lack of rain lately, a pond at a golf course in New Jersey had receded so much, most of the golf balls were exposed so Keller didn't even have to dive in the water. He simply walked around in the muck and picked them up.
Rothchild used to golf, but he doesn't anymore. Keller never golfed.
"It amazes me," Keller said, "how many people do not have fun golfing. They're swearing, carrying on, throwing their clubs. I've had courses where I've pulled 15 clubs out of a water hazard and guys are walking by and they chuckle at us, but before they know I'm there I can hear them cursing and they're not having a good time."
Rothchild said golfers usually stumble backward when they see him coming out of the water.
"Then they see who you are," he said, "and they get their camera phones out and take your picture."
Rothchild said more Titleist Pro V1s are lost than any other golf ball. A dozen sell for $58 new or $10 to $23 refurbished, depending upon their condition.
Golf ball diving has become so competitive, some divers sneak on courses at night and clean out ponds without paying the courses. Rothchild calls them "night hawks" or "night poachers."
Keller has gone scuba diving, but not golf ball diving, in Belize, Costa Rica, Aruba, Grand Cayman and the Galapagos Islands.
"There's nothing like diving with a school of hammerhead sharks for days at a time," he said.
Whenever Keller scuba dives near Rockport or Gloucester, he finds golf balls in the Atlantic Ocean. There aren't any golf courses nearby, but people enjoy hitting them into the ocean. Keller does the same thing, hitting hundreds of golf balls into the woods and the water from his family's summer home on an island off the coast of Maine. But he doesn't put on his scuba diving gear and retrieve them.
"The last thing I'm going to do is go get them," he said.
Rothchild loses money whenever he gives a ball back to a golfer, but occasionally he will if he's in the water when a golfer hits one in. He'll flip the ball to the golfer and tell him, "I'll just pick it up again next week."
Bill Doyle can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CUTLINE: Golf ball diver George Keller of Rutland collects golf balls in a pond at Bedrock the Golf Course in Rutland. (2) Golf ball diver George Keller, in the pond at Bedrock the Golf Course in Rutland, will always remember his close encounter with a koi, that "scared the bejeebers out of me." (3) George Keller dons his wet suit before a dive. (4) George Keller, entering the pond at Bedrock in search of errant golf balls, said he is amazed at how many people do not have fun golfing.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/TOM RETTIG