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Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore., Tim Trower column

By Tim Trower, Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 05--That golf ball you hit off line recently, the one that splashed into the middle of a pond, presumably never to be struck again?

It might not have been relegated to a watery grave.

It might just be resting, waiting for Chris Margison or one of his crew members to dig it out, send it to a way station of sorts in Texas, where it will be cleaned up and put on the market for someone else to knock around.

There are a lot of golfers out there capable of hitting bad shots.

"Thank goodness, or we wouldn't be around," said Jeff Wall, vice president of procurement for LostGolfBalls.com, in Sugar Land, Texas.

It doesn't look like the company is headed for a downturn anytime soon. It contracts out to divers all over the country and annually processes about 45 million golf balls, said Wall.

The company has 2,800 golf course clients in 44 states. About 65 of them are in Oregon, said Wall, including most of our local ones: Rogue Valley Country Club, Centennial, Eagle Point, Stone Ridge, Quail Point and Stewart Meadows.

Margison is one of 19 contractors used by the company. His diving business is in Southern California, and he works along the West Coast. His father started the business, and it's the only work he's known.

Margison recently visited RVCC and made a substantial haul: He pulled 21,000 balls from the various ponds, along with a few other items.

LostGolfBalls.com sends the divers in at no cost to the course, then buys the balls it retrieves. In this case, it was about nickel a ball, and RVCC made $1,000.

"I like it," said Craig Hilty, the club's course superintendent.

Normally, he said, the grounds crew spends money.

"I'm actually able to hand over a check, so it's kind of nice," said Hilty.

Vince Domenzain, general manager and director of golf at Centennial, feels similarly.

"It's pretty seamless," he said. "You just have to set up a day or morning for them to come and fish them out. Several weeks later, we receive a check."

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The balls are sent to Texas, where a workforce of 115 cleans and packages them for sale online and in "big box stores," said Wall.

The company has done extensive research, according to data on its website, to show that the performance of its top golf balls, rated 5A and 4A, is not compromised because they spent time in water.

They lose their luster, he said, which can be restored, "but performance is really not affected until they're in there 10 years," he said.

Cooler temperatures, such as in the Pacific Northwest, help preserve the balls more so than in those locales with sizzling temperatures and red clay surfaces, like Texas and Georgia. Water pH levels factor in as well, he said.

For the divers, it's a fairly basic process. Margison does as much diving as he can but also hires others. He dons his scuba gear, hooks up to a surface air compressor and gets in the water, hand picking the balls as he goes.

"Most of it is black-water diving," he said. "There's zero visibility. If the water is clear, as soon as you go digging around in the mud, you can't see anything."

Some courses can be done in half a day, some might take two or three days.

A number of things determine how many balls are retrieved. Some ponds, like the big ones at Eagle Point along the third and fourth holes and on No. 16, readily come into play.

At Stewart Meadows, the pond to the right of the first fairway doesn't attract as many as the ones on Nos. 5 and 6.

Similarly, Centennial's pond near the No. 3 tee box and No. 6 green doesn't come into play as much as those to the right on Nos. 8, 10 and 12.

Stone Ridge has some large ponds, and finding balls in them is a challenge because thick vegetation mats the bottoms, said Margison.

The quality of ball brands and models varies from course to course, he added.

Naturally, golf balls aren't the only things the divers come across.

A 3-wood with a player's name on it was fished out of one of the ponds at RVCC, and it was returned to the pro shop. It was one of several clubs, flagsticks and hazard stakes that were retrieved.

There's a long list of items Margison has found, notably umbrellas that were likely set down by golfers about to hit shots in windy conditions, only to have a wind gust send them skirting toward a pond. It's not uncommon to find trash cans and water coolers, he said, but he's also come upon power tools, purses, wallets and keys.

With his wide network of divers, Wall has heard of even stranger finds.

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In California, he said, a car with a dead woman still strapped in by her seat belt was found at the bottom of a pond, and a case of 1940s champagne was discovered in an Arizona pond.

Margison said course equipment and other items are returned to the superintendent.

Ponds in these parts are relatively safe, said Wall. Then there are the "alligator" states, like Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, he said, that are "pretty dangerous." Those divers, who also risk meeting up with snakes and snapping turtles, require higher insurance and it's reflected in what they charge.

The frequency with which divers go to a course depends on the number of balls they can expect to find. Typically, said Wall, they shoot for about a 5,000-ball take. A course that yields 20,000 balls annually would be visited about four times in a year, he said.

The recent retrieval was the first at RVCC, and there were a lot of balls in bad shape, said Hilty. He expects the divers to come a couple times a year going forward, and the balls they get will be in much better condition and will likely fetch a little more money per ball.

Those are "pearls," said Domenzain, noting that the retrieval process took him back to his childhood in Arizona. He and a buddy would sneak onto a course at night and dive for balls on a hole with an island green.

"It was the second hole," he said, "so the balls didn't get hit very often. A lot of times you'd find pearls in there."

They occasionally bumped into turtles or fish.

"That would take your breath away," he said.

Margison plays golf, and as such, has likely contributed to the business. But because he's on courses five or six days a week, he's sometimes reluctant to spend his free time at the "office," he said.

___

(c)2014 the Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.)

Visit the Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.) at www.mailtribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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