The used golf ball business, in which companies recover lost balls from ponds and bushes and offer them for a second sale, gets a lot of second-looks in recessions. Some devotees of top brands, needing to cut back on expenses, are suddenly unwilling or unable to afford new versions of their favorites. They flock to Web sites and fish bowls on pro shop checkout counters, looking for playable bargains.
Used balls are on golfers minds this time of year especially, with the best in the world at The Players Championship depositing premium balls in the worlds most famous liquid magnet. The pond around the ferocious par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass has drowned the hopes of golfers up and down the handicap ladder, and the balls those hopes rode on wait on the silt-lined bottom until divers bring them upat the rate of 120,000 per year. (Of that number, 64 came from regulation play at the 2008 Players, plus one more from Paul Goydos in the playoff against winner Sergio Garcia.)
| Some used balls come out of dense foliage. But with new premium balls costing as much as $4 each, many golfers go to extra lengths to recover such balls after the golf-swing accident that sent them bushward. |
Balls hit into the water, though, are almost always unrecoverable ' unless you have the right equipment and an intrepid personality. So ponds are a constant source of supply for the used ball market.
The right equipment ' and personality ' are the prime assets Jim Best brings to his job as a golf ball diver. Best, 40, who also runs a bicycle shop in Clearwater, Fla., is the man who gets to brave the elements ' and the animals ' to pull 120,000 balls per year out of the pond surrounding the famed par-3 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass.
Best is no diver-come-lately. He has been doing this for a decade, which shows the lengths some people will go to for money. He used the income from diving first to get through college, then to finance a divorce.
And its more than just strapping on the tank and swimming down. Theres a learning curve.
It takes probably three years to become really adept at getting the balls, Best said. At Sawgrass, if you do have visibility, you dont have it very long, because the silt is so fine, it rises up and you cant see anything.
And then there are the alligators. Ive been bumped a number of times. The juveniles, they get to eight or nine feet and they start getting aggressive. There was one of those at Sawgrass No. 17. I asked them to remove him, and they did. At Innisbrook, a 14-footer got within four feet of me. Scariest moment of my life.
And you thought the dogleg around water on your course was frightening.
' Adam Barr
Turns out finding balls in the water or bushes is a thriving business no matter the economic situation. But when the economy gets depressed, used ball purveyors get happy. One company, LostGolfBalls.com, reported on its site that it enjoyed a 93 percent sales increase in the last quarter of 2008, just when the bad financial news was breaking.
But 93 percent of what? As a derivative industry, the used golf ball market is not well measured. The owner of one company called his operation medium-sized, and he pulls in 4 million balls per year. A solo diver who retrieves balls from Florida ponds (see sidebar) surfaces with a million balls a year; he said there are perhaps five distributors who move more than 20 million balls per year. The total U.S. market would be about 500 million balls annually, he estimates.
Half a billion balls per year in this country alone? Seems high, especially when you consider that the new ball market is good for 40 million dozen annually, or 480 million balls. (The world market for new balls adds another 20 million dozen.) How is it possible to know who is refilling their bags with new balls and who is opting for pre-flown models?
But if the used ball market is not well measured, it is certainly well served. A cursory Internet search yields dozens of sites with names such as Golf Ball Pauls (golfballpauls.com), Cheapgolfballs.com, ILovetoGolf.com, and SOSGolfBalls.com (SOS stands for sink or swim.). Golf Ball Paul sells the balls he dives for himself; his Web site bills him as the 'Jacques Cousteau of golf.'
How is the recession really affecting these re-sellers? That 93 percent gain isnt universal. Golf Ball Paul, who is really Paul Lovelace of Kansas City, Kan., works some cautious optimism into his voice, almost as if hes on the tee of a watery par-3, sizing up his shot.
Were still watching the economy and paying attention to that, he said by phone from his retail store. We havent noticed a big drop in sales so far.
Drop? Isnt he expecting the recession to drive customers to his door ' and Web site?
Our sales on the Internet side are up, and were holding steady at the store, Lovelace said. It may be that the economy will have people playing less. But if theyre playing and need to cut back on expenses in some way, of course thats good for us. Until recently, we shipped most of our balls overseas anyway.
When the British pound was trading for $2 U.S., it made sense to sell balls to the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Lovelace said. Now that a pound is more like $1.50, the overseas benefit is diluted somewhat.
Still, there is robust international demand for used balls. LinksChoice.com, based in Scottsville, Va., has distribution partners in the United Kingdom (which covers all of Europe), plus Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Japan. It also has a major warehouse in Florida.
Hmm. Hard to say, said Patrick Daniels, sales manager for Second Chance Golf Balls, LinksChoices English partner, when asked about the size of the U.K. used ball market. Could be 10 to 1. Thats 10 million recycled to 1 million refinished.'
Recycled, Daniels explained, means a lake ball, one thats just dragged out and dried off. Refinished, though, is something else altogether.
Thats stripped, repainted, and restamped with the proper brand, Daniels stated, with extra emphasis. Cream of the urethane crop, or as the LinksChoice Web site puts it, white gold.
But as a practical matter, how does a used ball customer understand the risk involved? When is a used ball too used? What performance variations can a used ball user expect?
With the lake balls, the differences are obvious, said Daniels.
If its very brown and discolored, well sort it out for practice balls, Daniels said. The price generally dictates the quality youll get. But the performance difference is not huge.
Not every company ' few, actually ' will know where each ball in a lot came from. But modern balls dont involve nearly the risk of the last generation of pellets, said Paul Lovelace.
This is still a stigma we have to shake off, said Lovelace. The balls of a generation ago were made of rubber bands [the inner windings around the core] and balata covers. They could cut and get waterlogged. But now, its all polymers and polybutadeine, solid pieces of rubber. So no matter how long a ball has been in the water, theres no more deterioration than would occur on a shelf.
Predictably, the new ball manufacturers disagree.
Since our top priority is product quality, we do not approve of the re-used business model, said one executive at a top company who asked not to be named. The difference in performance of a ball directly from the factory compared to one that has been subjected to severe weather and water conditions can be significant. Therefore, we don't think consumers who want quality and consistency are well served with re-used balls.
All golf balls will lose distance if they have been submerged in water for months, said Steve Ogg, vice president of golf ball research and development for Callaway Golf. The magnitude of the loss will be very dependent upon the material characteristics of the cover and/or mantle. Different materials have different barrier properties. The spin characteristics are likely to be impacted to a lesser degree. The duration of time that the balls have been exposed to sunlight and water will typically be more important if the cover appears to be in good shape, with no cuts or scuffing.
But is a new coat of paint the cure for all ills? Depends on your perspective.
If the ball has been refinished, the aerodynamic characteristics may be significantly degraded, Ogg said. The effect of re-coating will be dependent upon the starting aerodynamic characteristics.
Are used balls truly imitations? And how can you really know how long a ball has been waiting to be found? There may be used car watchdog Web sites, but golf balls dont have anything like vehicle identification numbers (VINs).
Most used ball businesses try to solve this problem with ball quality grading systems, some of which get pretty elaborate. LostGolfBalls.com has a four-tier system beginning with AAAAA at the top (like new, one-hit wonders) and descending to AA at the bottom (Looks worn or discolored, with most having scuffs or blemishes. Appropriate for range and green practice.) UsedGolfBalls.com starts out with Mint, claiming playability and feel identical to a new ball. Four more grades, AAA, B, C and D, make up the UsedGolfBall system.
As you would expect, prices move with the ratings. UsedGolfBalls sells Bridgestone e6+ balls at the rate of about $13 per dozen in mint condition. That price drops to about $8.65 for AAA. At GolfBallPauls, a dozen Pro V1s will cost $25 in AAA, but only $9 in A. Other sites have similar options; shopping them is not unlike monitoring the popular travel sites for the best airline ticket prices. Inventories, availability and prices shift with the seasons.
Any used purchase, in or out of golf, is a caveat emptor situation. The skeptic will argue that the grading systems, in which the companies essentially keep an eye on themselves, is inherently suspect. The optimist will point to the money-back guarantees most used ball businesses provide. It all becomes a matter of how much risk a golfer wants to take, and what kind of ball fits his or her standard of play. And the companies that provide used balls understand that a good first experience will likely bring a customer back, while a bad one will get talked about and perhaps lose six customers instead of just one.
We've all been encouraged to spend to get the economy going again. Perhaps, as golfers, wed be better off just slicing another one into the lake ' after all, were the fuel for a whole used golf ball economy.