On what could well have been the worst day of his life, Glenn Berger felt something hard and heavy crawl upon his back. It turned out to be an amorous alligator apparently hankering for a mate. At that moment, Berger entertained doubts about the wisdom of his chosen profession, diving for lost balls in Florida golf course ponds.
But the Golf Ball Man didn't brood. "Alligators are a hazard in my line of work," he remembers thinking, "but what are the chances of really getting mauled?" Probably small. "What are the chances of getting killed?" Even slimmer.
Still, there was the matter of the dinosaur on his back. At Ibis Country Club in West Palm Beach, as Berger scrambled out of the water that spring morning in 2007, the lovelorn 7-foot alligator slid off without giving him a hickey.
He escaped with a terrific story — and about 4,000 golf balls. Some were worth only a few cents, but 15 percent — about 600 — were Titleist Pro V1s and worth about $2 each, even used.
So what if a sex-starved alligator had tried to take a few liberties?
At Pelican Preserve Golf Course in Fort Myers, the Golf Ball Man pulls on his mask, adjusts his air tank and vanishes into a pond.
Two kinds of golf ball divers work in Florida: those who have experienced underwater unpleasantries and those who soon will. Berger, 35, has a decade of golf ball work and scary stories under his dive belt. His strategy for coping with fear? Denial.
"Really, the best thing you can do," he says, when he surfaces minutes later with 125 balls, including a half-dozen Pro V1s, "is not to think too much. If you think too much you'll scare yourself."
Florida boasts more golf courses than any other state, about 1,250. Berger, who was born in alligator-free Indiana and lives in alligator-infested Southwest Florida, has dive contracts on about 30 of them. His territory extends from Key West to Pinellas County.
He competes for business with about 100 other full-time divers. Berger and other divers usually pay a fee — often a nickel per ball or a flat fee — for the privilege of working a particular course.
Berger retrieves balls on both inexpensive golf courses and at ritzy country clubs. Public courses attract budget-minded golfers who may play infrequently and hit many balls into the water. "Ball farms," Berger calls them. But the balls he harvests are usually cheapies. At private clubs, golfers are more apt to hit expensive balls. But they're often more polished players and less likely to hit balls into a water hazard — unless the hazard is something special.
The TPC Sawgrass course at Ponte Vedra Beach, home of the Players Championship, is such a place. The par-3 17th, called "the Island Hole," is virtually surrounded by water, which sucks down about 100,000 balls annually, many of them Titleist Pro V1s, which go for $45 a dozen new.
The Golf Ball Man dreams of getting the contract for his company, Berger Industries. Alligators be damned.
• • •
At Pelican Preserve, Berger sinks into another pond as a white egret scolds from the bank. In the water, schools of tilapia get out of his way. This course has no gators — or so Berger has been told. But in Florida, wise people assume that any creek, pond, lake or river contains them.
At 6 feet 8 and 250 pounds, Berger would be enough for dinner and then some. On the job he wears a black and blue wet suit, weights and an air tank he paints in a camouflage pattern in hopes he'll be invisible to lurking gators. They find him anyway.
"Typically they'll float over me while I'm on the bottom," he says. "They're curious, especially the smaller ones, and they'll dive down and bump me on the tank just to see what I am."
It's never a happy moment.
"One time I felt my arm in an alligator's mouth," he says. "I couldn't see anything, but I almost flew out of the water. There was no blood, so I think the gator just mouthed me without biting down."
The Golf Ball Man felt lucky. And he was.
In 2008, Dwight Monreal, 62, was diving for balls at Tampa Palms when a big gator grabbed him, dived for the bottom and started spinning. Monreal escaped but suffered a dislocated left shoulder, puncture wounds and an ambition to retire.
"Thing is, gators ain't supposed to bite you," Bubba Thompson said recently at Silver Dollar Golf Course in Hillsborough County. At 54, he has been diving for golf balls for more than half his life. "You're not on the menu."
He has been bitten twice.
"Worst was 15 years ago," he said. "I stepped on him and he got me pretty good."
He pointed to a half-dollar-sized crater in his left calf.
"I ain't going to quit," said Thompson, who harvests balls for T&D Golf in Oldsmar. "I used to work in drywall and hated it. I gotta love this."
• • •
The Golf Ball Man wades in again. His bubbles soon stream up from the bottom, 20 feet down, where he's crawling on all fours in almost black water, feeling ahead with his hands. As he searches this golf ball purgatory he's hoping for the wonderful, dimpled feel of a Titleist and not something, you know, scaly and toothy.
He's more likely to be hurt by poisons than by ornery reptiles. Polluted runoff tainted with pesticides, herbicides and various heavy metals washes into golf course ponds every time it rains. Berger tries to keep his immune system ticking by taking megadoses of vitamins. He keeps ear infections at bay with cotton swabs dipped in isopropyl alcohol and white vinegar. He never misses a chance to take a long, hot shower.
Berger is married to an understanding woman. They have a child. Berger likes to cook and used to support his family as a chef. He thinks there is more money in golf balls than meatballs.
At his warehouse he dumps the day's harvest into a machine, which conveys balls along a kind of an assembly line where they are bathed with bleach, water, a degreaser and a series of chemicals. After the balls dry, Berger sorts them according to value. Shelves in the warehouse sag under the weight of heavy bags. Near the front door are cardboard boxes bulging with golf balls ready to ship.
"I'm good at math," Berger says. "Time is money. I don't eat breakfast. I don't eat lunch. They take time away from hunting golf balls. My personal best is 17,000 balls in a single day. You can eat a big dinner after work."
Assuming you're not eaten for dinner at work.
• • •
"Don't tell me about the alligators," the Golf Ball Man often tells golf course employees. "I'd rather not know."
In the winter, alligators often crawl out of the pond to sunbathe on the fairways. "If they're out of the water I feel safe about going in."
Alligators are most aggressive during their spring mating season. In the summer they regulate their cold blood by remaining in the water and out of the hot sun. Berger's credo is "Look Before You Leap."
He walks the bank looking for alligators half-submerged in the weeds. He looks for alligator-shaped silhouettes in the middle of the pond. If he spots a nearby floater, he raises his arms above his head and shouts. Usually the alligator flees. If the alligator merely sinks out of sight he'll try another pond.
South Florida water hazards are like no other in the United States. Berger has encountered venomous cottonmouth snakes, snapping turtles and, now, the latest threat, crocodiles. American crocodiles, native to the Caribbean, once were rare in Florida. But the population has bounced back. Experts tell Berger that Florida's rarest large reptile is actually more timid and less aggressive than its alligator cousin, even though it is larger — crocs can exceed 16 feet — and looks toothier. At Hammock Bay Golf and Country Club, on the edge of the Ten Thousand Islands in Collier County, crocodiles occasionally bump him on the back with their snouts. He's not sure whether they want to be friends or eat him.
"I just try to not to think about them," Berger says. "I just focus on picking up golf balls."
• • •
Berger has found chairs, tables, umbrellas, bird skulls, dead fish, lawn mowers and golf carts. He finds a good number of golf clubs, probably flung into the water by hapless hackers who shanked their balls and lost their temper. Berger is fond of foul-tempered, impetuous golfers. He gets $50 for a $300 Scotty Cameron Titleist putter if it's in good shape.
He seldom actually sees a club on the bottom because of the near-zero visibility. As he crawls along, feeling with his bare hands, he simply touches them. One time he picked one up, felt a rusty shaft and tried to break it in half. Later, at the emergency room, the doctor tried to repair the severed finger tendons. Years later, his right hand remains a semiclaw.
But the bad hand still works. It picks up golf balls. And when the damaged fingers touch something unusual, Berger knows it.
A few years ago, while scouring a water hazard next to the 17th hole at the St. Petersburg Country Club, his hands touched something that felt like a tire. The tire, it turned out, was attached to the rest of the car.
Deep in the pond, Berger began feeling his way around. Eventually he approached the driver's side. The window was open.
"I thought about putting my hands inside that window. Then I remembered an old friend who has been doing this work for years. One time he put his hands inside the window and touched the body of a suicide. You don't want put your hands inside the window of a submerged car."
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.