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Odd Jobs: Diving For Golf Balls Is Big Business In The Valley
Odd Jobs is a series that looks at the surprising jobs people carve out for themselves — and why they're so necessary.
John Weynand was dressed for work – in his wetsuit – and driving a golf cart around his “office” for the day. The Ocotillo Golf Resort in Chandler is a mass of rolling, manicured greens and palm trees. There’s also water, lots of it, at almost every hole.
Off and on, Weynand has spent 24 years underwater at places like this.
“To get into a pond with living critters crawling around the bottom of it in the dark, for the next, say, six hours,” he said, pausing just a beat. “It takes a different person."
Like many golf-ball divers, Weynand doesn’t rely on machinery or traps. He uses his hands, without gloves this time of year, and works a pattern with his fingers across a pond floor. Imagine a really filthy Easter-egg hunt.
“I’d say 50 percent of the time you don’t know if your eyes are open or closed,” he said. “It’s just complete darkness. You’re just feeling through the mud.”
And he doesn’t just uncover golf balls.
“We find hundreds of golf clubs a year,” he said. “I’ve found a Harley Davidson in Arkansas. I’ve found guns, a set of handcuffs, bowling balls, shopping carts.”
But golf balls pay the bills. Weynand estimates the industry standard is about 8 to 10 cents a ball. That can translate to $40,000 a year or more, no problem, he said. To Weynand, that’s not bad.
“Especially for me,” he said. “No education, no college. I do alright. My bills get paid, you know.”
That’s not to say golf ball diving is a fairytale industry. Unlicensed SCUBA divers sneak into courses at night. Every few years, Weynand will hear of a diver drowning on the job. Growing competition means that Weynand often has to travel far to find work.
But not today. He unpacked his stuff, put on his flippers and mask, and walked into a pond of dark, recycled waste water. An air compressor, tethered by a hose, floated on an inner tube nearby. Weynand flipped a switch and, as it started to loudly rumble, he disappeared into the murky drink.
Around the same time in Mesa, an army of women was quickly separating bushels of golf balls by grade and brand into buckets. It’s Sunshine Golf Balls, where Weynand’s catch will soon end up.
Owner Lee Evanko estimated up to 15 million balls plunk through this room every year. Her company will clean and maybe polish them, but there’s only so much they can do.
“They’re either good balls or they’re not good balls,” she said.
The good balls can go far — to the company’s little shop, online sellers and other retailers around the country. Evanko even sells balls on the other side of the pond.
“In Australia and Holland and Canada and England and stuff like that,” she said.
Back at the Ocotillo course, John Weynand emerged from his stinky bath. He was holding five balls, or about 40 cents worth. Weynand said he once owned a sign-painting business and had a little café in the past.
But has he ever had another job he likes as much as this? No, he said, without hesitation. He explained that he would miss the solitude, the freedom — and the cash.
“I do enjoy it,” he said. “The good times outweigh the bad times.”
Still, people don’t last forever in this industry. At 45, Weynand is close to retirement. But he won’t give up diving for good. He imagines ending up somewhere like Hawaii, where the water is welcoming and crystal clear and he can dive for fun.