An Internal Revenue agent follows a man to a neon-lit tavern and picks up the bar conversation in snatches through the blare of jukebox rock. The agent notes the flash of bills, the diamond cuff links.
A telephone rings in a split-level. The anonymous caller offers information, for a price.
A Doberman paces outside his doghouse. Inside the doghouse is $1,500.
A man in swimming trunks wades into a lake. His hand strikes something below the surface. A body.
May 18, 1969
Guards with pistols lie on their bellies on a deserted golf course. They wait, high-powered binoculars searching the tree line.
Two frogmen work stealthily on a moonless night, moving through a tangle of weeds, past a dozing 1,100-pound sea cow. There is a dark swirl of water. Then silence.
Heroin smugglers? Jewel robbers? No. Just part of the multimillion-dollar business of scavenging golf balls. Every week about $1 million worth of golf balls are retrieved by professionals from the lakes and creeks of U.S. golf courses. In a year 150 million balls are recovered, and the competition to get them is cutthroat as men wade, grope, rake, scrape, disk, trap, vacuum and dredge. The professional golf-ball scavenger may be a young entrepreneur with a half-million-dollar company and a crew of Blue Cross-insured scuba divers who contracts with country clubs for scavenging rights but he must be ready to protect his franchises with pistols. Or he may be an ex-carpenter who travels up the coast with the warm season and cleans a club's creeks and lakes of balls once a year. He brings up 25,000, splits the profits with the golf pro and moves on. Or he may be a fly-by-night operator who makes a quick $500 by slipping into a course's water hazards after dark and stealing 1,500 balls in one night, leaving a bent wire fence as the only clue to the theft. This world of intrigue is often no farther from your clubhouse than a hooked tee shot. Look around carefully. Maybe down near the reeds in the lagoon by the 9th green—just where you dunked your approach yesterday. See the frogman's fins, the metallic gleam of his air tank?
Ball hawks will poor-mouth their profession, tell you it is a nickel-and-dime job. It is the swimming they like, or the outdoors, or the independence. That's what makes it all worthwhile. Honest. But a scavenger in North Carolina drives a Porsche and sends his daughter to private school on the profits he makes from operating in 27 states. A man like that can afford to be self-deprecating. The scavenging concession at Miami's Doral Country Club and Hotel, which has four courses and is building a fifth, is rumored to sell for $25,000 a year, although the club, too, strenuously denies that the figure is that high.
More forthright, or so big he can afford to be proud, is a former door salesman in Northern California. Unsatisfied with his divers merely groping in the mud for balls, he invented a vacuum cleaner that sucks the balls out of hazards. The machine outperforms divers 3 to 1 and is so rewarding that a San Jose businessman has offered $400,000 for the company and its mystery apparatus.
Water balls are marketed at cut rates (from 25¢ to $1 apiece for unscarred Titleists) in pro shops and sporting-goods stores, and are sold in bulk to driving ranges, cruise ships and the U.S. Navy. During a year seamen hit hundreds of thousands of 3¢ and 4¢ balls off carrier decks. Companies that wholesale used golf balls are listed with Dun & Bradstreet. Increasingly, the profit potential of scavenging is attracting college-educated men with degrees in philosophy, engineering and business administration. They pay lawyers and advertising fees, and consult with biologists about pollution in water hazards, chemists about solutions for cleaning golf balls and university labs and zoos about their weed problems.
A scavenger—man or bird or beast—is a member of a demeaned race and, as with others of his kind, the ball hawk is viewed uneasily. Golf pros are particularly mistrustful, as suspicious of the young alpaca-sweatered scavenger who leaves business cards and printed brochures as of the stranger who arrives on a hot summer morning peddling a trunkful of discolored golf balls. "I think you have to have some hustle in you to be a successful golf pro," one scavenger says, "and they are always afraid they are going to be outhustled." Sometimes they are outhustled, the golf pros say. Scavengers have been known to make agreements with pros and then retrieve only half the balls in a hazard during the day while they are under surveillance. Then they go back at night and take the rest. If a country club pays a particularly good price for every ball retrieved, say 12¢, an unscrupulous scavenger may add several hundred old balls that he has picked up elsewhere to the number he presents at the pro shop. A few months ago a young pro in North Carolina went to Raleigh to take a PGA examination for his Class A card. While he was gone, a man came to the pro shop and told the pro's wife that he had been authorized to clean the water hazards. She gave him permission. He made off with several thousand balls, leaving no name or address. The pro was probably $1,000 poorer for the experience. Only a few weeks before a newsletter published by the Carolinas Section of the PGA had warned: "Watch your lakes—unknown divers recently invaded the golf course in the Grand Strand area around Myrtle Beach [S.C.], pilfered over 10,000 balls out of the lakes at night, boxed them up and carried them to the bus station for shipment to a Florida address. Area pros, alerted by a secret informant, went to the bus station with police but nothing could be done." Nighthawks in the area say the number of balls taken from the Myrtle Beach course was actually 17,000, and another 25,000 were taken from ponds in Greensboro, N.C.
It's enough to give a pro nightmares, and one can see the dream unfolding like an ancient myth. The pro girds himself with water moccasins and descends to the bottom of his lake. Venomously he waits for the scavenger on a pile of gold golf balls. There is a ripple, then a murky cloud. The snakes lunge toward the intruders, but they are everywhere—grasping hands in thrashing water, behind, in front, now circling. The pro is trapped in a whirlpool of goggled faces. The mound of gold golf balls gives away below his Foot-Joys. He awakes in a sweat.
If his concern is not always expressed so dramatically, the golf pro is nonetheless anxious about his ball-scavenging franchise. It increases his income by 12%, to 15%. Usually pros are reluctant to discuss the size of their profits, but one at a Texas country club says he sold $15,000 worth of water balls last year. He paid a flat $250 a month salary to a local scavenger and netted $12,000. On an average, golfers playing courses with water hazards lose one to two balls during every 18-hole round, and most country clubs allow their head professional to make what he can salvaging these balls.
Some pros, such as Jackie Burke Jr. and Jimmy Demaret at Houston's Champions, buy themselves a dragger, which costs about $200. It looks something like 20 dinner plates set on a rod and is towed across lake bottoms, maneuvered with ropes by men on the banks. The balls, and occasional duck eggs, are wedged up between the blades. At the Sunol Country Club near Livermore, Calif. the pro has a more ingenious and efficient method. The bottom of the pond between 9 and 18 was specially contoured so that balls hit into the water would roll along the asphalted sides and collect in three pockets. The pro drains the hazard by pushing a button, bags his golf balls and throws a switch to fill the lake again. The professional at Hayward (Calif.) Golf Club has a less scientific but equally facile method. He sits in his pro shop in the evenings with binoculars. If he sees nighthawks working his holes he does not disturb them until they begin to dress. Then he rockets down the fairway in a golf cart and confiscates their sacks of balls. "He's been doing that for years," a local scavenger says.
Golf pros seem to have an increasing interest in building water hazards these days, and the reason is not a new concern with the subtleties of golf-course architecture or the challenge the game can then offer the members. Nor is it a matter of enhancing the beauty of the course. It is merely a matter of profit. Not only can you get golf balls out of water hazards, you don't have to mow or seed them. Some scavengers even peddle weed killers that also dye the water in hazards so that players cannot see lost balls near the edge.
There is much shuffling of spikes and forelock tugging as a pro negotiates a deal with a scavenger. In his cool, silent shop the turtlenecked, sideburned pro leans on his counter. The questions come between long pauses. The scavenger fast-talks. Then he too falls silent. The pro picks up a golf ball and bounces it, down and up, down and up, into his fist. Sometimes the two men agree to split the balls, the scavenger taking 80% and the pro 20% of the best, which the scavenger will deliver cleaned and shined. Other pros want every ball taken from their hazards and pay 7¢ for each un-cleaned ball or 10¢ to 12¢ for those that are cleaned and marked with a painted stripe to identify them as practice-range balls. Finally there are the pros who want no part of these balls taken out of the water and prefer to sell the scavenging rights on their course for a flat fee. The ball hawk may pay $1,500 a year, but every ball retrieved will be his. Club professionals can be dreadful estimators of the wealth of balls in their lakes. Some years ago a ball hawk called on a Mount Vernon, Texas professional and asked to clean his pond. The pro said it was not worth the trouble. The ball hawk pressed his plea, and eventually the professional agreed to give him 10¢ for every ball he brought up. The harvest was 18,000 balls. The pro had to go to the bank to get the $1,800 to pay off the scavenger.
A skilled ball hawk usually can guess within a few hundred balls what a hazard will yield. He considers the number of rounds played on a course and such factors as distance and the prevailing wind. The par-3 hole over water will have inferior balls in its lake, since most golfers will not risk teeing up a brand-new $1.25 Maxfli or Spalding Dot. It is the long holes with water hazards not visible from the tee that produce the best-quality water balls. Lakes on the right of the fairway will have more, but inferior, balls than lakes on the left—the slicer normally being a high-handicap golfer with less ego involved in the quality of the ball he uses.
The undersea life in a country-club water hazard is not nearly so predictable. One takes precautions. Pros talk of alligators and tell of dogs that are missing or have been maimed. "They seem to think that an eight-inch alligator brought back from Miami Beach will scare us away," one amused nighthawk says. There are no reported instances of alligator attacks and few of snake or turtle bites while golf-ball scavenging. There is, however, a Texas tale of a ball hawk riding around a lake on a 25-foot carp, and in California they speak of king rats big as cottontail rabbits floating among the lily pads. Catfish are the menace at the Lakewood Golf Club of Hollywood. A scavenger working the lagoon between the 2nd and 10th fairways was once seen bolting from the water during a ladies' day tournament. He shot up the bank, dropped his pants and pulled a large catfish off his thigh. Since then Lakewood's ball hawks have used shoelaces to tie their slacks tight to their ankles.
The golf scavenger never knows exactly what lurks or lies in wait. For instance, a couple of years ago a Dallas ball hawk was groping in the water on the 8th hole at the Tenison Park municipal course and found what he thought was a log. It was a corpse. The man had drowned several months before. More frequent discoveries are rifled safes and wallets, golf clubs and golf carts (a Florida scavenger pulls 35 to 50 a year out of hazards). One diver tells of surfacing and finding a woman's halter floating toward him. He retrieved the garment for an apparently unperturbed lady who had lost it leaning over a bridge.
Scavenging equipment varies widely in sophistication. The small operator may use nothing but swimming trunks and his toes in summertime, and pull in his winter haul with a garden rake. He may clean his golf balls by putting them in a washing machine with detergent. "It makes a racket," one advocate of the method says, "but the balls sparkle." Not surprisingly, the larger the scavenging operation the more advanced the equipment. Ken Kohlberg, now a pro in Florence, Ariz., used to be a ball hawk in Chicago. At Tam O'Shanter, where a river meandered through the course, he built traps to snare balls carried by the current. One day he found 8,000 piled up. Kohlberg worked for 22 clubs in the area and says he never salvaged fewer than 10,000 balls a week. He has kept some of the rare balls he retrieved, one which was made around 1902.
Men who now ball-hawk in Chicago would have you believe that it is a scavenger's poverty pocket. They bemoan the coming of the solid golf ball that can be hacked and whacked and still endure. It is cheap and almost indestructible. Because the solid ball hardly ever cuts, driving ranges that use them need to buy fewer and fewer water balls. The only balls that the ranges must replace are those that are stolen. One out of every five golfers in Chicago is using the solid ball now, and scavengers predict that one out of every two will play with it by 1979. Mike Wilk, one of Chicago's lamenting scavengers, tells of his cruel fate. "I knew I'd never get a million dollars," he says, "so I decided to save a million golf balls. When I collected them they were worth 18¢. each, but then the solid balls took over and the value dropped to 6¢ Just to satisfy my whim, you might say I lost $120,000." To recoup his losses, another Chicago ball hawk has decided to join the opposition. He is manufacturing solid balls in his basement, stamping them out on a $90,000 press.
The oldtime scavenger is a resourceful, savvy man. He is evasive about detail and especially about profits. Consider Mike Lopez, a Mexican-American who worked as a butcher, a cook and a filling-station operator. Fifteen or so years ago he was sitting one night in a St. Louis tavern. "I was talking with a man named Ed," he recalls. "Ed was a Polish fellow with a long last name that I couldn't pronounce. He said to me, 'You've got a nice face, Mike. I like you.' He invited me to go diving for golf balls. I asked him: 'What does a golf ball look like?' " Lopez went ball scavenging with Ed on a few occasions. When Ed was hospitalized with a serious illness Lopez decided to quit his job as cook and build his own business from mud-bottom. Three years ago he went into partnership with a bright Washington University student named Jerry Manker, and the business began to expand. They now operate the M & J Ball Company out of a warehouse in northern St. Louis, and the scene is a striking one of free enterprise at work. The neighborhood is sparse, its upright brick houses reminiscent of those in an Edward Hopper painting. The sun etches sharp shadows on the silent pavements and the cracked steps of Baptist churches. A camper truck, M & J Ball Company printed irregularly on its doors, stands outside the warehouse. You ease through a hatch door. The counter in the warehouse is heaped with plastic-packaged range balls. A homemade machine that paints as many as 15,000 golf balls in a day stands in one corner. There are waist-high barrels of peroxide powder and a bathtub for cleaning golf balls and a bin rigged with a blower to dry them. Compressors supply power and also air for the dozen yellow aqua lungs lining the wall.
Lopez has begun to diversify. He says he must because the solid ball will seriously hurt his scavenging business within the next four years. He has begun selling air to the St. Louis rescue squad and the city's universities. That pays the overhead. And he has started to manufacture putters. He proudly shows an order from Japan for 200 of them.
In summer M & J has four crews (in winter months usually just two) of divers crisscrossing Southeast to Southwest. They move from Sarasota to Houston, staying on the road for three to six weeks. Ten of the 12 crew members are college boys, and Lopez says he has another 15 "sitting around the Beta houses" on call. To work for him they must sign a seven-year contract—which helps retard competition—take out a $10,000 life insurance policy and buy a rubber suit. M & J supplies a truck, sleeping bag, cooking utensils and pays transportation costs—gas, oil, tires, etc. The boss of a crew receives 6¢ for each ball he retrieves; the other men are paid 5¢ per ball. Lopez deducts 10% from the number of balls a man turns in before paying him. He says at least that many balls salvaged from water hazards are useless. He also may be taking into account his belief that no one can be completely trusted in the ball-hawking business.
The divers clean the balls at the course where they are recovered, deliver the number specified in the scavenging contract to the pro and move on. They work two or three clubs in a day. A couple of years ago they carried identification cards—each man had one with his photograph and name encased in plastic. But competitors began showing up at courses with similar credentials which attested that they were M & J representatives. Lopez' crews now identify themselves by producing the company's invoices. "It would cost $150 to duplicate these," Lopez declares, "and no crook will invest that much."
When Lopez finds that a rival crew is bidding for the same contract the matter is often settled by the two crews diving into a lake to see which can recover the most balls in an hour. As well as the contract, considerable side bets are often at stake.
The competition for water balls is fiercest in the resort areas of the Southeast, where the mild weather makes it a year-round, night-and-day occupation and there are more than two dozen professional scavengers jostling for a fin-hold in the water hazards. Twenty-six-year-old Tom Parise controls the region's most lucrative concession, the Dora I Country Club and Hotel. He refuses to say what it costs him, only that it is "by far the most expensive scavenging franchise." An average Florida concession is sold for between $1,000 and $1,500 per year.
Doral lies just west of Miami airport, a Gold Coast Garden of Eden. Monkeys swing in gazebos and rare birds stalk by waterfalls, Clairol-created homo sapiens and dyed flamingos. The deer on the lawn are plaster of Paris or Teaneck, N.J. Doral is a horticultural extravaganza. Its dozen buildings make luxury hotels on Miami Beach look like par-3 clubhouses. The hotel has accommodations for 1,400 people, and the management says that 90% of the guests golf during their stay. A conveyor belt delivers their clubs to a patio near the pro shop, foursomes are packed into electric carts (the hotel owns 375) and with assembly-line efficiency dispatched at eight-minute intervals. As many as 903 golfers have played Doral's three courses (the Red, White and championship Blue) in a day. There is a par-3 laycut as well, and another full-size 18 is under construction. To obtain fill for bunkers, tees and greens in the desolate coral flatland of south Florida, lakes and ponds must be dredged. There are 30 water hazards at Doral, enough to keep Tom Parise and his crew diving daily. Because of the large number of hazards and the high percentage of women who play Doral's courses (about 50%), it is not unreasonable to estimate that, on the average, each golfer loses a couple of balls a round.
Tom Parise is an intense individual who in his leisure time reads physics and math textbooks. He feels that pure sciences teach him to think. Five years ago he was paying his way through the University of Miami with a $1.50-an-hour, six-night-a-week job on the maintenance crew of the Colonial Palm golf course. The club's ball scavenger, who needed some help, taught Parise to dive. Within a year Parise quit school (he needs only 15 hours more of study to get a physics degree) and began to ball-hawk full time. "I figured the opportunity wouldn't wait," he says. Red Aylor, a man who owns the front-door concessions at a number of Miami Beach hotels and also owned the ball-scavenging franchise at Doral, was impressed by Pause's earnestness and endeavor. Last year he offered him a 50-50 partnership in the golf-ball business. They now operate at four other Miami area clubs and employ three full-time divers and two who work part-time. Recently Parise and Aylor opened a chain of retail shops in the Miami area called Mr. Golf Ball, Inc. to dispose of their water balls. The stores also stock wedges, putters, golf gloves, tees and umbrellas. They still sell the larger part—75% of their balls—to wholesalers and golf ranges. Parise envisions someday operating two or three ranges himself.
He will consider almost anything that will make his business more profitable. A few years ago a weed named Japanese alodia began to clog Doral's finest ball-producing hazard, a lake 250 yards long between the 3rd and 4th holes on the Blue course. The weed looks something like a star pine and grows at the incredible rate of 15 feet a week. Parise's divers tried to tear it out by the roots, removing the morass that oozed to the surface with mammoth conch shells swung out into the hazard on a crane. The alodia began to thrive again. Someone suggested buying a sea cow to eat the weeds. Parise rented one from the Stale of Florida. It ate and ate, for 15 or 20 hours each day, but there were more weeds than it could stomach. "Perhaps if we had 10 sea cows and a sea bull," a distraught Parise said last winter. Sadly, the sea cow died of pneumonia a few months ago.
Nighthawks dislike working in the labyrinthian tangle of such a weed, and illegal activity on this hole at Doral has sharply declined. However, Parise watches the hazard carefully. On his midnight vigils he takes along pistols and a friend. "You cannot shoot a man over golf balls, but there have been times I've thought about it," he says. "You simply have to outrun the nighthawk or beat him to his clothes or car. I've had their cars impounded by the police, but usually the autos are stolen or are worth so little the nighthawk never claims them." Parise often receives tip-offs when a scavenger is going to hit his lakes. The hawk usually comes between midnight and 5 a.m. If he is caught, local courts give him a minor sentence for trespassing, probably only a $50 fine. "You've got to keep your lakes clean—certain ones we empty two or three times a week," Parise says. "You've got to make it so that it is not profitable for nighthawks to work them. A guy who tried ours here the other night complained that he got so few balls he could not pay the $6 to refill his air tank. That sort of information spreads."
In the cold weather the divers put on three or four pairs of pants and four or five woolen shirts under a rubber dry suit. On top of that they wear an oversized sweatshirt that is cinched around their hips by a weighted belt. As they move over the sharp and intricate coral floor of the water hazards, the balls they find are popped inside the sweatshirt. Parise says his record is 638 balls in one shirt. Usually he collects only 200 or 300 before coming up for a new tank.
Parise has made one unusual investment. He bought a Doberman pinscher as a watchdog. He has 65,000 golf balls stashed in his house and garage. For safekeeping, he has put another 35,000 in the Doberman's doghouse.
Ingenuity is a trait of all scavengers, but it manifests itself in diverse ways. Move on to California now and meet the button-down-executive ball hawk whose blue business card reads: "Pearl Divers—Golf Ball Recovery and Sales." Derone Thrasher of San Bruno, Calif. is 30, and two years ago he was selling $1.5 million worth of wooden doors annually for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation. He still assesses paneling in restaurants with little more than a cursory glance.
While he was soberly pursuing his career his brother Ted and his brother-in-law Merle Keller were nighthawking. They had scavenging contracts at three clubs but worked two or three others at night. "They are sportsmen," Derone explains. "They love to hunt—ducks and pheasant. They were always sturgeon fishing in my runabout, which I never seemed able to use. They could go where they liked when they liked—and if they needed money they nighthawked." Being a door salesman was not all that idyllic. Derone made some inquiries about scavenging, decided it could be profitable and quietly lined up a few contracts. Then he invited Ted and Merle to dinner. He suggested the three of them go into partnership. He would be the promoter and front man, and their ball-scavenging company would only operate legally. Ted and Merle shrugged and said, sure, they'd try it. With its new image the business began to thrive. In 10 months Derone had signed 20 contracts with golf clubs, and the work was overwhelming Ted and Merle. Derone decided a machine should be able to collect balls more efficiently and quickly than scuba divers. So he and his father, a retired truck mechanic, began to construct scavenging devices. None worked very well. Then they built an apparatus similar to the dredges used for silt, gold and clams. They invested $3,700 in parts and worked some 2,900 hours before producing their "vacuum cleaner." The dredging unit is mounted on a four-foot-by-eight-foot float that is powered by an Evinrude motor. It has different heads for different type bottoms. Balls are sucked up a six-inch pipe and drop into compartments. Golf clubs recovered from hazards drop through another trapdoor. Bottles, water, goldfish and an occasional trout gush out through discharge pipes. The machine moves 700 gallons of water a minute. It can find balls buried in eight inches of mud. Joe Zakarian, the president of the Northern California Section of the PGA, says it retrieves three times as many golf balls as any diver can. The machine's first major test was at Zakarian's course, Los Altos (Calif.) Country Club. First a diver worked the large water hazard that stretches across the 9th and 18th holes and netted 467 balls. The machine then scoured the lake and came up with 2,937 more.
Thrasher says he was offered $400,000 for his vacuum cleaner business by a man who was eager to start ball-scavenging franchises across the country. However Thrasher turned down the bid. He continues jealously to guard his machine. Rival scavengers, cameras strung around their necks, have been seen on the banks of lakes where the Pearl Divers work. Twice the Highway Patrol has stopped Thrasher's truck and inquired what kind of device he was transporting. The machine is whiskey-still brown, purposely drab so that it will not draw curious eyes. Although Thrasher is building a second vacuum cleaner—it became a necessity as his company now has scavenging contracts with 60 golf clubs—he is still not completely satisfied with his invention. He wants to redesign it so that it will be able to walk off the truck under its own power, trundle to a water hazard, do its job and get back into the pickup.
The company's success and rapid expansion astonishes Merle Keller, who is 28 and retains the exuberance and tattoos of a onetime sailor. He tilts back in a bar chair, thumbs stuck in his red brass-buttoned vest, a cowboy boot crossed over his knee, as he talks about his years night hawking. He tells of spending two nights in jail for stealing balls at a club that he now works legally, and of the time he and Ted wanted money to go to Las Vegas; they broke ice on a water hazard, waded into it in cutoff Levi's and collected $300 worth of balls. He remembers sitting for several hours one night crouched on a bank barely 10 feet from a guard. The man finally left, and Merle got his quota of balls.
He no longer needs the instincts and bravado of a huckster and a nighthawk. The challenge these days is elsewhere—in the Pearl Divers' burgeoning business. Derone, however, remains the organization man. He keeps a color Kardex that includes information on every course in Northern California. He files away useful memoranda—on the number of hazards, their depth, a rumor that one pro is to be replaced, that another is a possible candidate. Thrasher is as interested in courses with no water as ones with it. Such clubs will pay premium prices for water balls to use on their practice ranges. Over his desk is a map of the area with thumbtacks pinpointing the golf courses—a yellow thumbtack denotes a club under contract, a green one signifies one that is not. Other colors indicate that a prospectus has been mailed to the pro or a personal visit paid to him. Often Thrasher visits six clubs a day, at some delivering sacks of processed balls and at others making pitches for business. He offers a standard contract: the pro pays 12¢ for every ball found in his lakes. For that price, they are cleaned, striped for use on the range and returned to him in onion sacks. Thrasher explains that the balls are bleached (but not dulled) in a secret solution developed by a South San Francisco chemist, and that the stripes painted on them are the best in the business. The balls dry as they move past a microcounter, under high-intensity lamps, down a 40-foot rack.
Thrasher's vacuum cleaner can operate in reservoirs, such as at San Francisco's Harding Park, where it dredged up 25,000 balls in three days recently. The pro is offered other services, too. "That lake over there is crystal clear," Derone may note. "We can take care of that so the golfers cannot find their balls." He suggests that algae in another hazard be examined by a Stanford University laboratory to determine the proper chemicals to kill it. As a protection against nighthawks, Thrasher will install a black alarm box in the center of a lake and run trip wires out to the edge. If a nighthawk stumbles on a wire, a loud buzzer goes off for 15 minutes and then the box resets itself. Thrasher figures he loses perhaps 15% of his balls to nighthawks. Last winter he tipped off the Internal Revenue Service about the activities of one man who was hitting his lakes regularly. On two of his courses Thrasher is experimenting with lights near the hazards.
The lights have reinforced-plastic covers to protect them from BB gunshot and light-sensitive switches that turn the lamps on in the evening and off in the morning. If a club will give him a five-year ball-scavenging contract, Thrasher will install such lights free of charge. He is considering—for the same guarantee—offering to build water hazards for golf pros at no cost. He notes that three or four of the clubs he deals with have dug ponds on their own in the last few months. Currently Thrasher is constructing dams in creek beds so that streams will not dry up during the summer months. Such precautionary measures, he points out, insure the pros' golf ball harvest.
Derone Thrasher and the new breed of scavengers like him are counting on innovations and diversification for future profits. Perhaps in the next century they will hunt golf balls with laser beams, and submerged computers will send homing signals to airborne Titleists. In the under (water) world of the scavenger anything is imaginable and nothing seems impossible. Last winter Thrasher and his crew made a bid to help salvage the Japan Airlines 707 that pancaked in San Francisco Bay. Why not? They figure they can get anything out of a water hazard.