SUGAR LAND, Texas -- If you've played golf long enough, you've probably had that "Tin Cup" moment. It might not have come on a par 5 but on a par 3 -- you basically find yourself pumping most of your ball supply into the water as you stubbornly try to reach the green over a hazard. But what's more painful, the 26 you made on the hole or the dozen golf balls you just lost? If you're like most regular golfers, it's the $30-$50 you just drowned. Of course, if they're used, it's far less painful.
But there's certainly a stigma associated with playing used golf balls. If we find a good one (such as a Titleist Pro V1) at the edge of the woods, most of us will put it in play at some point.
Yet buying recycled golf balls is beneath many players and for good reason.
After all, these golf balls are usually harvested from ponds, streams and lakes, and water has to be bad for them, right?
Well, that's true but probably to a lesser degree than you think. And it used to be truer than it is now. The golf manufacturers have long made claims that balls recovered from water lose a significant amount of performance. But much of that was before the solid core technology and advanced cover materials used today. The truth is golf balls are so well made today that they can spend a few nights or even weeks in the water and come out just fine -- at least for casual play. (I mean, if you're playing in the U.S. Open qualifier, break out the new sleeves.)
Does that mean all recycled or refurbished balls are the same? Of course not. You have to beware of companies that might repaint inferior balls, often distinguished by a non-genuine logo. And you don't want anything that's been underwater for a year.
The good news, these days, though, is that the companies that sell millions of recycled golf balls harvest them regularly, so they're not spending much time in the water. And the balls are sold according to grade, so you get what you pay for. It also depends on where the golf balls are lost. Golf balls recovered in the saltier waters of Florida and Louisiana deteriorate a little quicker than balls found in the colder lakes and ponds of the Pacific Northwest, for example.
Buy the top-graded golf ball, and it's almost impossible to tell from new. In fact, some golfers have been known to buy high-grade used balls and put them back in their old sleeves.
Lost Golf Balls: 50 million and counting
The largest online retailer of used golf balls is Lost Golf Balls (lostgolfballs.com), located in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston. The company was started a little more than a decade ago by four former Texas A&M golfers, who used their connections in the golf industry to contract divers at various golf courses, starting primarily in Texas. The operation began in a garage using washing machines.
"You can imagine the noise complaints," said Andrew Linn, e-commerce coordinator for Lost Golf Balls.
After a couple of ownership changes (two of the original owners are still with the company), the company now harvests golf balls from more than 2,400 golf courses, from every except Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota. Hawaii is on the list because shipping them back from Hawaii to Houston would be cost prohibitive. But Lost Golf Balls does ship its product to golfers in Hawaii.
"We ship a lot of golf balls to Hawaii, but we never get them back," Linn said.
He's joking to a degree, but it is conceivable that you could actually buy your own golf balls back after you dunk one in a pond. After all, in 2013, Lost Golf Balls sold between 40 and 50 million golf balls, and the number is over 50 million in 2014. They're shipped by truck to the company's large warehouse, sorting and washing facility, which can house 20 million balls at a time.
Workers sort the balls according to grade. The best ones, AAAAA, look pretty much brand new, and the next grade down, AAAA, have minor blemishes but pretty much play like new. Independent testing in California showed that the higher-rated recycled golf balls tested like new balls, and in some cases even flew farther, which could be attributed to the dimple patterns being somewhat smoother because they're a little worn, Linn said.
Titleist Pro V1s lead the pack
It's not difficult to figure out what brand of used golf balls sells the best.
"The golf balls we sell the most are the one's people lose the most," Linn said.
And that would be Titleist Pro V1s, of course.
"Forty percent of our sales are Pro Vs, thanks to Titleist doing the marketing for us," Linn said.
Second place changes constantly, but Linn said the $8 a dozen Bridgestone E-6s and Srixon Q-Stars are perennially in second place. But every once in a while a TaylorMade or Nike Golf model will be up there.
"Whatever's getting the most attention at the time," he said.
In case you were wondering, Lost Golf Balls does not harvest from the lakes at the TPC Sawgrass Players Stadium Course, where estimates are that more than 100,000 golf balls find the drink annually on the infamous par-3 17th island hole alone. But there are certainly courses that have exceptional yields, Linn said.
For example, the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston (formerly Redstone), home of the Shell Houston Open, has water that comes into play on more than half the holes. Divers recover tens of thousands from the Rees Jones-designed course.
The top producing states for Lost Golf Balls are Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and California.
As for what you can expect to pay for your brand new Titleist if you were to lose it and buy it back, they're about $24 a dozen or $199 for a tub of 100 for the used, top-grade, 2014 version of the Pro V1. The 4A grade Pro V1s are $20 a dozen. Prices do not include shipping for orders less than $99.
The company also sells a few other products, including a one-size-fits-all golf glove ($8), bulk tees, towels, umbrellas and Super Stroke putter grips. Those products, by the way, are new. The company has no immediate plans to enter the used golf club equipment market.