A Game within the Game - A side gig on the fairway
The Endless Search
We all do it, sometimes several strokes a round. We hit a ball and lose it. In woods, water, leaves, or plain view…every year, we leave thousands of golf balls behind, perhaps to be stumbled upon by some future golfer. This is rarely on purpose—the leaving or the finding—but there is a special group of people (many of whom also happen to be golfers) who particularly enjoy searching for these lost treasures. I affectionately call them the Golf Ball Hunters.
Golfing with my friends who fall under this category, I often wonder which gives them more satisfaction: a perfect stroke, or a perfect find. I know one who not only searches for balls, but also for their original boxes. The shelves in his garage look like a pro shop display; you wouldn’t know the cases of balls are used until he tells you. He simply finds the boxes in the pro shop trash, hunts for balls on the course, cleans, sorts, and there you go: everything goes back in its place. I know, it sounds like a lot of work. My friend could easily sell them, but as far as I know, he simply does this for fun. Sometimes he’ll give them away.
I have another friend, Skip, whom I call a “reluctant” Golf Ball Hunter. He just happens to have the perfect golf ball finder: a large swimming pool, surrounded by an even larger privacy fence, just off a fairway. If they go over the fence, very few balls are rescued. And if they land in the pool? Forget about it—they now belong to Skip. (You can even see ball-shaped holes in his fence!) Skip separates the balls by brand and type and places them in clear plastic bags. When he sees me laboring past his house on a muggy afternoon, he’ll oftentimes bring them over to let me look through as he hands out ice cold water and beer to our foursome.
What is it with these guys? It seems they have two things in common: they enjoy the hunt, and they enjoy giving to others. (Though no offense to the more economically-minded guys who sell used balls, of course!)
But what goes on in the mind of a Golf Ball Hunter?
Sitting on my porch one August evening with legendary Golf Ball Hunter Jim Douglas, I decide to find out.
I start off by asking him directly: “What’s up with hunting for golf balls?” Here, Jim surprises me. He explains that the pursuit has an unexpected benefit: finding a few good golf balls can actually turn a bad round of golf into a good one. His process is more complicated than I thought; Jim doesn’t search for golf balls that he likes and can use, but rather has a list of friends’ specific preferences. Armed with his list, Jim embarks on the hunt. He knows his friends’ favorite colors, brands, compression ratings, and more. He’s on a mission to help others.
He never sells them and seldom uses them. How many does he currently have in his garage…thousands? Why so many? Jim tells me that he saves them all year-round to be used for a special hole in a charitable golf tournament—when they all get hit into a pond to be retrieved someday by a “professional” ball hunter. (And that’s another story for a different day!).
Like any seasoned Golf Ball Hunter, Jim knows exactly how many balls fit in a regulation five-gallon bucket. He even conducts bounce tests to determine where each will go and how they’ll be used.
When asked if there was competition on the course, Jim admits there are others out there. Every Golf Ball Hunter has his own secret spots and techniques. But despite the friendly competition, all remain friends.
Is it dangerous?
Poison ivy and oak, snakes, and falling strike me as the safety issues around this sport-within-a-sport. The first few, Jim seems unalarmed by. He can recognize plants (as a retired farm agent), and snakes hear him coming a mile away. But falling is a risk that sometimes accompanies a good search. He takes it in stride; according to him, you learn to expect slipping or getting tripped up. It strikes me that, for a Golf Ball Hunter, suddenly golf has the potential to become a contact sport.
Are there tools or methods for searching for golf balls?
Turns out for Jim, it’s mainly your feet. You get to the point you know when you are stepping on a golf ball (or a walnut, oddly, as both have a similar feel). Yes, a good five-gallon bucket and a ball retriever come in handy, but most of it is a little luck, a lot of familiarity, and knowing where to search. Jim has it down to a science, understanding which tee boxes are used by which golfers and where exactly a good golfer is likely to “miss.”
When I ask Jim if he’s ever considered making money doing this, he replies, “I’ve been blessed financially and told myself when I retired that my goal would be to never have a job again. And so far, I’ve been fortunate not to. This is a hobby and something I enjoy. I’m more of a giver than a receiver—I like finding balls that I know will make others happy.”
What goes on in the mind of a Golf Ball Hunter? For guys like Jim, seeking out wayward balls is not only a healthy hobby, but an exciting new layer to this game we all love. But ultimately, it’s a way for Jim to help out those he loves. So, the next time you slice a drive and watch it disappear in dense forest, don’t despair—because where there’s golf, there will always be Golf Ball Hunters. Fore!