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The uneasy occupation of diving for golf balls | Community News

There are more bad golfers than good ones and there are a lot of lost golf balls.

Some slice into the woods and are never seen again and others fall victim to a water hazard.

The ponds at golf courses hold a bounty of balls if someone is willing to go in and get them. There are companies that are in the business of finding those balls and selling them again, turning all of those “ker-plunks” into “cha-chings.”

The found balls are sold in stores to be hit again or are sold in bulk for driving ranges. There is good money to be made — otherwise why would someone sink themselves into a murky pond to give a golf ball a new life while risking their own.

Steve Kocell is one of those pond divers who visited Berkeley County recently. On April 26, he was at the Daniel Island Golf Club and the day before that he was at Crowfield Country Club in Goose Creek. He works for Used Golf Ball Recovery and Sales in North Carolina, which contracts with a lot of local courses to collect the balls that have disappeared into the depths of ponds.

In his gas powered cart with a small truck bed, Kocell goes from water hole to water hole. Some ponds are shallow enough that he can keep his head above water, skimming the muddy bottom with his hands. In deeper water, he puts on a tank and goggles.

Needless to say, looking for golf balls in a Lowcountry pond can be dangerous.

Kocell has been plucking balls for over 30 years and he’s had a few run-ins with alligators — or, as he calls them, “lizards.”

“They’ve treated me really well so far today, they’ve left me alone,” he said from a pond on Daniel Island, while scanning the pond muck with his hands in waist deep water. “You get used to them with respect . It’s a 600-pound dog. They’re going to swim across the pond and bump into you. They want to know what you’re doing in their pond.”

“I’ve been doing this for 36 years and I’ve been chewed on five times,” he added. “It’s more of a clamp on and a head shake.”







Steve Kocell said he has been diving for balls for 30 years. He has been bitten by alligators on five different occasions.



Luckily the gators, quickly released Kocell after inspecting him, but he did surface under a large one eleven. It was the closest he’s come to a major attack, he said. That encounter left him with stitches. But the close call never stopped him.

“Once you’ve broken past the fear of what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it, you just have to get in the water. You get in the water because it’s what you do,” he said. “I’m not normal. Most people won’t swim with gators.”

And he’s had his share of startled golfers — those who are on the green getting ready to stroke a putt amidst the sounds of a soft breeze and chirping birds when a scuba diver gargles up from the depths.

“They can be surprised by seeing bubbles and not knowing what it is and all the sudden I pop my head up to see where I’m at,” he said. “I see facial expressions, hand gestures and some verbiage, is what I usually get. It’s unique.”

Combined with the added risk, plucking plastic balls from the bottoms of ponds wouldn’t seem too lucrative of a career, but Kocell makes a living. His company of him, which processes 6-7 million balls a year. Kocell did not comment on how much he and his company de el make, but he said recovered golf balls can be worth anywhere from 2 cents to $1.50 or more, depending on the type of ball.

The course gets a cut, and Kocell is paid by the ball. He visits area courses about three times a year and each time he leaves with about 60,000 golf balls. Combined with the other areas visited, he gathers over 1 million balls a year, he said.

“It pays the bills,” said Kocell. “With four daughters, they feed on it pretty hard so it’s kind of like, ‘keep daddy in the water.'”

And it’s not just golf balls he finds scouring the sometimes hazardous water. He also discovers items that can only be the result of a few frustrated golfers.

“I pick up 5-600 clubs a year, and in my career I’ve pulled up 16 full bags, all the clubs are in there and everything,” said Kocell.

Kocell has, no doubt, come to terms with the risks of the job and takes pride in the fact many others in his field won’t dive in such waters. And he also gives an ironic answer to the obvious question about his own golf game from him.

“I give the same answer to everybody and they all shake their head,” he said. “I’ve been diving for golf balls for 36 years and I’ve never swung a club on a golf course. I look at the ponds and I see money.”

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