Jim Reid doesn't wear his bulletproof vest to bed anymore. But he still keeps a bowie knife hidden in his boot, a Colt .45 stashed in his Corvette and a 9-mm Beretta concealed somewhere on his body. "I prefer my nine-millimeter Beretta to my .380 Beretta," Reid says. "The nine-millimeter holds 16 bullets. The .380 only holds 13. In my line of work you can never be too sure." You wouldn't think that finding and selling wayward golf balls was such a perilous profession.

As Reid tells it, there's enough danger and underwater intrigue in the golf ball-recycling business to sustain a number of James Bond sequels. "Basically, I profit from other people's mistakes," says Reid, whose outfit, Second Chance, based in Orlando, Fla., brings in $1.4 million a year. Reid worries about operations horning in on his turf. He worries about poachers raiding his ponds at night. He worries about alligators and sabotage and industrial espionage. "I used to be paranoid," he says, smoothing back his Elvislike pompadour. "But now I'm cured. Now I'm just...careful."

Reid, 46, arrived in Orlando nearly 20 years ago and took a job as a surveyor at Walt Disney World. One day 10 years ago, a friend of his who was the pro at a nearby country club told Reid he thought there might be a lot of balls in one of the course's water hazards. Reid dived in and discovered "the bottom of the pond was covered with golf balls," he recalls. "White gold!" Reid gave up surveying and plunged into ball salvaging. Soon his garage was crowded with Spaldings and Pinnacles and Maxflis and Top-Flites and Acushnets. He washed them in an old Maytag and resold them to the hapless souls who had hit them into the pond in the first place.

Now Reid and the 10 divers he employs comb ponds all over Florida, the state that boasts the most golf courses, and most lost balls, in the country. His divers recovered six million balls last year alone. Each ball is cleaned in a vat of mysterious, stain-removing chemicals. Reid is so leery of spies that he makes employees sign a five-page contract, promising never to reveal the solution's formula.

After immersion in Reid's golf dip, the balls are dried in plastic crates and graded and sorted according to brand and general condition. Then they're repainted, clear-coated and packed off to pro shops and driving ranges, where the cycle starts all over again. The average cost of the reconditioned balls is $325 per 500-ball box.

Actually, Second Chance is something of a misnomer, as most balls have more than two lives. The covering of choice used to be balata, a soft substance that would cut easily or cause balls to "go out of round" quickly. But several years ago manufacturers started using Surlyn, a synthetic substance that provides a harder, more durable jacket. Now even cut balls can be sandblasted and rehabilitated for use on a driving range. The lowest-grade cut balls are sold to cruise ships, from which they're hit into the ultimate water hazard.

Reid perfected his refinishing technique the way a hacker hones his stroke, through trial and error. He once let 500 range balls clunk around a cement mixer overnight. "They rolled and rolled and rolled," he says. "It took everything off." Including the better part of the dimples.

Unfortunately, he forgot to tell this to the golf pro to whom he sold the balls. The pro called him a few days later. Reid says he sounded perplexed. "What's with those balls?" asked the pro. "They've been loop-de-looping all afternoon."

Reid mentioned the cement mixer.

"No problem," said the pro. "It's been great for business. People have been signing up for lessons all morning."

Reid has clients in most states and dozens of countries in Asia and Europe. But his domain is dwarfed by that of another Floridian, Jerry Gunderson. "Jerry is like Idi Amin," Reid says with sly amusement. "He wants to control the world."

He means the world of used golf balls. Gunderson once approached Reid with an offer to buy Second Chance. International Golf, Gunderson's company, is headquartered in a sprawling Deerfield Beach, Fla., complex that's ringed with barbed wire. Security is so tight that you have to be buzzed into the boss's office.

At 55, Gunderson is an effusive fellow with a firm handshake and a belly shaped like an outsized Hogan 392. His business card is stamped with the motto "No fuss, no muss, leave the golf ball diving to us." He shells out about $500,000 a year for exclusive scouring rights to 600 courses from Maine to California, including almost every TPC layout. On a good day his divers can pull up as many as 1,500 balls. He says the water hazards on the right side of the fairway yield the most balls. "Most golfers slice shots," he says. "Very few hook them."

Gunderson was 12 when he waded into his first pond, at a municipal course in Lake Worth, Fla. He laid out his booty on a bench and sold the entire haul. "I may have been a little too industrious," he says. "They put a detective on my tail and caught me in the act." So he struck a deal with the club pro, who paid him 8 cents for each recovered ball.

He paid his way through Florida State by tending a small weekend circuit of courses in Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Atlanta. Fraternity brothers who wanted a piece of Gunderson's action had to pass a test. "I made them stand under a freezing shower for 20 minutes," he says. Few survived the initiation.

Before investing in scuba gear, Gunderson groped around in the cold, silty sludge with his toes. "In the old days I walked into a lot of glass jugs," he recalls. "I'd yank my toes out and my feet would be slashed. The great thing today is that there are no bottles. Now it's all cans."

But the hazards faced by contemporary ball hawks are far more formidable. "You can't make out anything," says Reid, who was once singed by lightning while submerged. "Your hands begin to see, like a blind man reading Braille." Two of Reid's divers have been bitten by alligators or whacked by their tails; another surrendered a finger to a snapping turtle. Another lost an eye when he popped out of the water and into the trajectory of a three wood. Others have drowned.

Besides balls and clubs, divers dredge up all sorts of nongolfing debris, such as 10-speed bicycles, tire irons and X-rated videocassettes. One ball retriever in Ohio found a dead man with his feet in cement blocks and his hands chained behind him. "I doubt that the victim was caught poaching balls," says Gunderson. "The punishment seems too severe."

Poachers, known as nighthawks, are the recycling trade's greatest handicap. By raking away balls, they rake off profits. "The most common kind are the retirees who buy $300,000 homes along the water's edge," he says. "They feel they're entitled to the balls, but they're not. They're pirates, in my view."

And how do ball manufacturers view recyclers? After all, a dozen of Gunderson's Titleists cost about half the price of new ones. "They leave us alone," he says. "They realize there's room enough for both of us." The used-ball market, he says, is just a little dimple on the face of an industry that sells 190 million new balls a year.

Reid doesn't worry that sporting goods firms may one day conspire with officials to wipe out the good-old-ball network. "About the only thing they could do to stop us," he says, "is change the rules and make all golf balls float. But, then, that would hurt their business, too."

PHOTOBRIAN SMITHGunderson buys diving rights across the country to keep his firm awash in golf balls. TWO PHOTOSBRIAN SMITHReid's profitable haul from a lagoon (top) will be processed and sorted, by condition and brand, at Second Chance's Orlando facility.