• Otter Views: Range Balls

    Tom Stevens for CST

    The advent of immense white buses with darkened windows ferrying fans to the AT&T has me thinking about golf. I’ll admit up front I know little about the topic, but that hasn’t stopped me before.

    Because I’ve golfed very poorly and infrequently, most of my associations have to do not with the game, but with the balls. And specifically, range balls.

    Range balls are what golfers hit for practice. They’re the same size and weight as balls used in actual games, but the range ones are usually dirtier and more nicked up. Also more plentiful. Other sports balls, no matter how tough, can be shredded by terriers, run over by trucks, or gnawed by rats. But like a Zale’s diamond, a golf ball is forever.

    Granted, bowling balls, hockey pucks and curling stones are as durable, but there are far fewer of those in the world. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a curling stone or a bowling ball lying in the roadside grass? Golf balls, on the other hand, are everywhere.

    There are a couple of reasons for this. Because the sport is insanely difficult to master, every golfer must go through countless buckets of balls – far more than, say, a softball player or a bowler. Also, in other ball sports, the ball usually bounces back or is retrieved if it leaves the field of play. Golf balls are considered expendable.

    Golf balls also have something like a 20,000-year atomic half life. As a result, I’d bet 95 percent of all balls ever made are still out there somewhere – playing jacks, rattling around garages and thrift stores, lying in culverts, or sinking ever deeper into mother earth.

    A few of those balls are still new, like the ones hit into deep rough and abandoned this morning. But most balls fall into the battered warrior “range ball” category. They may be nicked, stained, or scuffed, but if they fly true, they can still be used for practice.

    How many balls are we talking about? Here we need math. I’ve heard that most pursuits require 10,000 hours of practice before mastery can even be mentioned. If a golfer on the driving range hits 30 balls an hour, then 300,000 range balls will be needed for mastery of the woods and long irons. Multiply that by the number of golfers in the world – say, 50 million? – and you need a lot of range balls.

    This hunger for practice balls drives golfers to do some nutty things. My dad was like that. As a golfer who grew up poor during the Great Depression, he was ever on the lookout for golf balls he didn’t have to buy. This “waste not, want not” thriftiness stayed with him even in his later, more prosperous years.

    One year, he rented a fairway condo near the ocean for the family’s Easter vacation. He was on his way to play a round of golf one morning when he spotted a treasure trove of new white balls lying in a pond beneath a footbridge. Wheeling his golf bag back to the room, he donned swim trunks, grabbed a bucket, mask and fins, and dashed back out the door. Sputtering and slimy, he returned later with his booty: a bucket full of discarded Easter eggs.

    On another vacation, he was trying to quit smoking. We were staying at a hotel near Disneyland that must have bordered a driving range, because he had noticed lots of balls mired in a muddy drainage swale. Restless from nicotine withdrawals, he went out very early one foggy morning to get the balls. That time they were balls, but he slid into the muck trying to retrieve them.

    While I didn’t inherit my dad’s passion for golf, I did get some of his ball retrieval DNA. This came in handy when I lived for a time in a rental house fronting a beautiful blue bay. At least once a week, my next door neighbor would set up in his front lawn with his driver and a bucket of balls. He’d tee the balls up one by one and send them sailing out on long arcs to splash down into the ocean.

    Finding this behavior appalling and wasteful, I rigged up a floating wire basket, donned mask and fins, and set out to recover the balls. Luckily the bay was sandy, and the prevailing currents swept the balls into convenient clusters. In an hour of free diving, I could fetch 50 or 60 and plunk them into the basket.

    I’d take these to work and distribute them among the golfers, who were surprised at how clean and white they were.

    I’d smile modestly. “If you hit ‘em straight, they don’t get dirty.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 24, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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