Water moccasins can be tricky. Shards of glass may pierce his waders. Stones are murder on the knees. And it's no picnic diving through inky, chemical-clouded water with people taking aim at you. But that's not the worst part of the job. "It's the turtles -- they'll take your finger right off," says Michael Aux Tinee, Golf Ball Diver.
Clad in waist-high waders, a 70-pound feedbag girdling his waist and his ball-retrieving invention, "Mr. Lucky," in hand, Aux Tinee wastes little time before plunging into one of the many amoeba-shape ponds that dot this Illinois course. "I can't tell you all the golf courses I hunt," Aux Tinee says in a conspiratorial whisper. "I don't tell nobody. There's a lot of freelancers."
Welcome to the secretive world of golf ball retrieval, an estimated $200 million industry that thrives beneath the crisp surface of mainstream golf. In 2002, Americans spent roughly $855 million on new golf balls, according to the National Golf Foundation. By his own reckoning, Aux Tinee is a small fish in the vast pond of golf ball retrieval. Whereas some divers will sign an exclusive contract with as many as twenty golf courses to retrieve balls, Aux Tinee has "verbal agreements" with seven courses around St. Louis.
A retriever will typically pay the course a nominal fee -- five to ten cents per found ball -- for the exclusive privilege of collecting that course's quarry. Aux Tinee, on the other hand, takes a more casual approach: So long as he supplies the clubhouse with refurbished balls, the course is his for the diving.
But even for a small-time retriever like Aux Tinee, golf ball diving is fast, dirty and lucrative. The 67-year-old estimates he can scoop up between 1,000 and 3,000 balls on a given day. Over the past fifteen years, his unpatented "Mr. Lucky" -- a wire ball basket welded to the end of a telescoping pole -- has pulled more than 1 million balls from the links around St. Louis. And though he doesn't want to be precise -- "you know how many guys'll be calling me up saying they want to go into the golf ball business?" -- Aux Tinee says he averages between 150,000 and 300,000 balls a year.
Once the balls are cleaned in Aux Tinee's secret solution, he can resell them for anywhere between thirty cents for a dud range ball to two bucks for the gold-standard Titleist Pro V1x. Says Aux Tinee: "You do the math."
Aux Tinee sets himself the goal of scooping 1,000 balls inside of an hour. He first plies the little pond's perimeter. He's feeling with his knees and hands. Each of his appendages is pawing at the pond's silty bottom in search of a dimpled globe. Soon he dispatches "Mr. Lucky." He gives the pole a few learned back-and-forth rake strokes, prompting a small brown torrent to erupt in the green liquid. "People still pan for gold," he says, popping up a basket full of balls. "Here's what I pan for. I just made four dollars!"
Aux Tinee learned his art from Bill Mets, the local grandfather of golf ball diving. He remembers noticing the divers. "One day I asked, 'What are those guys doin' in the water?'" he recalls. "I thought, 'Well that's a pretty shitty-ass job.'"
But soon Aux Tinee was learning at the old man's feet. Mets had a virtual lock on the city's courses; it's rumored that at his death he had contracts with nearly every course in the city. "There was a power struggle after he died," says Aux Tinee. "There were guys goin' everywhere." But power abhors a vacuum, and soon Mets' kingdom was divvied among the next generation of divers.
Many of the younger guys have dropped out. The money may be quick, but it can come at a price. And though Aux Tinee has never been hurt, some of his fellow divers have not been so lucky. In June of 2001, Emmett Clive Willis III drowned while hunting balls in Hickory, North Carolina. The same fate met Mark Feher while he was working a course in Boynton Beach, Florida. Some divers have nearly lost their lives amid the branches and fishing line that often rest at pond's bottom. In swampy Florida, alligators are a major hazard.
Of course, these are the extremes. More likely is an encounter with a snake, a boozed-up golfer, a broken bottle or an irate turtle. But the real problem, says Aux Tinee, are the "nighthawks": people who sneak on to courses under the cover of night to rob the nest. Nighttime golf-course security is often lax. Aux Tinee hits each pond only once a month. It's a combination that leaves plenty of time and opportunity for a poacher to decimate a pond. "I don't trust these guys," says Aux Tinee. "But they don't go in real deep like I'm doing right now."
By this time, with his knee-to-hand, hand-to-knee, knee-to-"Mr. Lucky" crab walk, Aux Tinee has worked his way to the middle of the pond. His feedbag is approaching half-full, and so far, the day has been clear of errant mulligans, snapping turtles and venomous snakes. We're in Illinois, just across the border, and this course of straight fairways and lots of water is a magnet for duffers. That may make it tough on the maintenance crews, but for Aux Tinee it only means one thing: white gold, and lots of it.
"The average golfer loses five balls a game," Aux Tinee says as he pushes himself ever further through the murky depths. "There's gold in these waters!"
Still, an hour after he emerges, muddy, wet and algae-soaked, it's clear Aux Tinee wasn't able to meet his goal of 1,000 balls in an hour. "We did 500, easily," he says, hoisting the bag in front of him. The haul is less than he'd hoped for, but Aux Tinee is philosophical. "This is a spiritual principle at work," he says. "It ain't about how much money you got in the bank; it's about sharing. We've all got ponds in front of our lives, and I'm giving something back: golf balls."