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Bearing the ball hunt

As most who indulge in the sport are painfully aware, the flight of a golf ball often does not stay on its intended path.

That is bad for the golfer but good for those who make a living retrieving balls from various bodies of water.

"These golfers hit golf balls all over," said Steve Tallitsch, who retrieves balls from water hazards at golf courses throughout the area. "They just don't go where they want them to go."

Tallitsch sees that in his work every day. His Gator Golf company, based in Palm Harbor, typically hauls in 20,000 to 25,000 balls per week using a rolling machine that is dragged through the water.

Michael Gerstner does the same thing, but in a different manner. Gerstner owns Tampa Bay Underwater Services and serves the West Coast of Florida. Over the past two decades, he has dodged alligators, overcome turtle bites and battled ear infections to retrieve more than 10-million balls. Unlike Tallitsch, Gerstner dives for the balls with scuba equipment.

Either way, it is big business.

"I know one thing: It is a huge, huge industry," said Jeff Hollis, the manager at St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course, where he estimates there are some 40,000 balls pulled from various water hazards during the year. "There is more demand than there is supply for top-grade recovered balls."

Tallitsch, Gerstner and others who retrieve balls typically sell them for anywhere from 10 to 40 cents apiece, depending on quality. In some cases, they might give a percentage of the balls to the course where they work, then keep the rest to sell to other courses, driving ranges and pro shops.

It can be a lucrative, although highly stressful, occupation.

60,000 balls in one week

Tallitsch stumbled upon his "profession" quite by accident. He sold his business in Sycamore, Ill., and retired to Florida in 1985.

"I was sitting around for a year and decided I wanted to do something," said Tallitsch, 75.

Someone from his hometown also was doing similar work retrieving balls and it sounded like a good idea. He bought a John Deere tractor and had someone make a roller that picks up dozens of balls when dragged through the water.

His business grew to 24 courses in the area, but has since cut back to work just four days a week.

"If a course has a lot of water, I can do much better than divers," Tallitsch said. "They can't cover all the area I do. They hit the hot spots and find a lot of balls, but it's time-consuming to cover all that water. So I'm able to recover a tremendous amount of balls.

"I once did one of the five courses at Disney World and got 60,000 balls in one week. There is so much water that these guys can't cover what I cover with a roller."

But Tallitsch does not consider divers his competition. He knows there is a place for them. What hurts are people called "night hawks" who illegally go on courses at night and hunt for balls. In fact, Tallitsch won't say what courses he works, fearing the night hawks will strike between his visits.

"Because of them, there are courses I have to hit every month," Tallitsch said. "If I don't, I'll be cleaned out."

I started to get up and "whack'

For Gerstner, it can be more of a dangerous job. He must avoid errant shots and the creatures that lurk beneath typically muddy waters.

"It's been real good to me, really," said Gerstner, 43. "It's good pay. But for the danger and risk involved, it's not what everybody would think."

Indeed, some would say Gerstner is a bit bent _ and not because of decompression sickness that can occur when scuba diving.

His coverage area includes 50 courses from Spring Hill to Fort Myers, and he pulls in about 1.5-million balls per year.

But Gerstner pays a heavy price for doing such work. He has a constant ringing in his ears because of a bad air tank he used several years ago. The ear infections and colds are frequent. And having to deal with alligators in lakes is no fun.

And these are not comforting dives in serene Caribbean waters. Most lakes on courses are filled with muck.

"Your hands are your eyes most of the time," he said "You're just hunting blind."

That can make for some scary encounters, like when an alligator tried to take a chunk out of his leg.

"It was like somebody hit me with a sledgehammer," Gerstner said. "It happened instantly. No defense. People ask me if I have weapons. You can have all the weapons you want. There was no time. He grabbed hold of my leg.

"Their weakest part is the eyeballs. I grabbed his head to get to his eyeballs and he released but started to spin. His teeth were caught in my wet suit and finally he came lose. Believe me, I got out of there right quick. That was pretty hairy."

Gerstner sometimes gets help from Bud Meisser, 47, of Tampa, who hunts for balls using his feet and hands. He, too, has his share of alligator stories, but they are not as bad as the shot he took to the head several months back _ from a ball.

"I got whacked right off the tee. It clocked me, right there in the head," he said. "I saw three guys on the tee, so I crunched down in the water and waited to hear them all hit. After that, I started to get up and "whack'. It nearly knocked me out. I didn't know there was a fourth guy playing from the pro tees."

Now he wears a batting helmet. But he never considered giving up his job.

"That's part of the business," Meisser said. "No different than a carpenter cutting his finger off or a truck driver getting in a wreck. It happens."

But are the balls good?

Why all the fuss about golf balls? Because they are expensive to the player who needs just one shot to lose a golf ball. A pack of three new balls typically runs $7 or $8, with a dozen usually no less than $20.

That makes those "used" or "retrieved" balls that sell for $1 apiece pretty inviting.

But how good are they? Does a ball that has been submerged for any length of time perform worse?

"For the average player, I really don't think it matters," Hollis said. "If it's a balata ball, I would think it would make a bigger difference. A solid ball, Pinnacle or Top Flight _ unless it's been two or three years _ I don't see it being a problem."

Last year, Golf Digest did a study on recovered balls. Using a robotic hitting machine, the magazine found two-piece Surlyn cover balls traveled 250.7 yards new, but just 241.6 yards after being submerged for six months.

"The missing link in this equation," the magazine wrote, "is that when you scoop a ball from the water, you never know how long that ball has been sitting there."

For Tallitsch and Gerstner, it likely hasn't been too long. They make their rounds frequently, and remarkably, there are plenty of balls for them to pick up each time _ along with some other things.

Despite finding pickup trucks, cameras, thousands of golf clubs, bags, shoes you name it, Gerstner always manages to come back with what he sets out to find.

So does Tallitsch, who does not play golf but has learned just how difficult the game can be to those who try.

"These people hit the ball everywhere," he said. "I have such a volume of golf balls that I can make pretty good money. A dime a ball doesn't sound like much, but when you get 3,000 to 5,000 at a time ..."

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