I rate myself a mediocre golfer, though perhaps I'm too erratic to deserve even that adjective. While I can par the local course a couple of times a year, when things aren't going well, which is more than half the time. I whack shots to all the wrong places. To afford the game, I decided I would either have to improve considerably or discover an inexhaustible source of golf balls. As any golfer knows, it can take years to attain even modest skills, and I was afraid that if I began to experiment with my game, my hard-won mediocrity would degenerate to the utter hopelessness from which I started. So I settled for the second option, which proved to be a wise choice.

Finding golf balls is a minor art, and I feel I've become proficient enough at it to pass along a few observations and experiences.

The 1st hole—usually a par 4 or 5—is one of the best places on any course to look for balls. Players who haven't fully warmed up will often slice their drives. If such a shot travels out of bounds or even into heavy rough, the average duffer will smile sheepishly, mutter brief excuses, try his best to forget what happened and begin again with a mulligan.

On any par-5 hole, I look for heavy rough 300 to 350 yards from the tee, on either side of the fairway. Players who hit poor drives and hope to make up yardage will very often swing too hard with fairway woods on their second shots, and low, whistling hooks and slices commonly result.

Behind the green on a short par 3 is always an excellent bet. A lot of inexperienced players overclub on such a hole, and finding balls 50 yards or so beyond the green isn't at all unusual. Determining the fertile areas on any course is a fairly simple matter, and if you stroll through them between shots, you'll usually find at least enough balls to cover your own losses.

In order to maintain a surplus of balls, I make a few trips a year to the local course on winter mornings. Cold weather kills the plants and algae in ponds, and this clear water makes it possible to collect—with the help of chest waders and a six-foot pole with a net at the end—as many as 100 balls in an hour. Water hazards are loaded with balls, and unless you're faced with a lake or an ocean, there is a way to salvage some of them.

I consider myself a conservationist, not a cheater of sporting-goods companies, and I still buy new balls occasionally. Swinging at a ball that has never been hit is a pleasure. And finding balls is fun, so even my own disastrous shots are opportunities.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)