(This story was originally published in 2014, but was updated on April 18, 2018.)
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 (refurbished), 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 make their runs often in the same locations, 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.
LostGolfBalls.com: 650 million and counting
The largest online retailer of used golf balls is LostGolfBalls.com, located in Sugar Land, just southwest of Houston. The company was started more than 25 years 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. Since 1992, LostGolfBalls.com has sold more than 650 million golf balls. Last year, sales were close to 55 million and reaches out to nearly 5 million golfers, according to Semih Dilek, director of e-commerce for LostGolfBalls.com.
The company harvests golf balls from more than 2,400 golf courses, from every state 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 LostGolfBalls.com does ship its product to golfers in Hawaii.
It is conceivable that you could actually buy your own golf balls back after you dunk one in a pond.
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.
Titleist Pro V1s lead the pack
It's not difficult to figure out what brand of used golf balls sells the best. And that would be Titleist Pro V1s, of course. They account for approximately 40 percent of the company's sales. In fact, LostGolfBalls.com has even started to sell the Titleist AVXs, which were only available in test markets (and have already been recovered in California), as well as the new Titleist Tour Softs, which are already being recovered.
The company is also seeing a rise in Callaway Truvis balls (soccer ball patterned) as well as well as yellow, pink and other colored balls.
"We've definitely seen a rise on colored golf balls sales," says Dilek, who attributes much of that to the creative ad campaigns from companies like Volvek, Callaway and Srixon. It also helps that some tour players, especially the women and the seniors, are playing the colored balls.
In case you were wondering, LostGolfBalls.com 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.
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 LostGolfBalls.com are Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and California.
As for what you can expect to pay for your brand new Titleist ProV1 if you were to lose it and buy it back, you can find high-grade older models for about $20 in mint condition. The Callaway Truvis mint (5A) balls and Volvik (5A) go for a little more than $22 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 ($10), bulk tees, towels, umbrellas and SuperStroke putter grips. LostGolfBalls.com, however, has no immediate plans to enter the used golf club equipment market.