The Story of a... Golf Ball Diver

Water hazards at Orlando golf courses take on a whole new meaning when Mike Wooten, 47, enters them.

Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

You’re actually crawling along the bottom of a pond, sticking your [bare] hand in the mud to find something that’s round and slippery. Visibility is practically zero, 99 percent of the time.

The equipment is your basic scuba gear. It depends on the weather what suit you wear—a neoprene wet suit or a high collar dry suit, which is what I wear now [December]. The only other piece of equipment is a mesh net bag. I just fill it up [with golf balls] and go to shore when I’m done.

I’m a sub-contractor for a company that reconditions golf balls. The way it works, and these are just ballpark numbers, is that the course gets paid something like a nickel a ball, the diver makes six or seven cents a ball, then the company sells them in bulk to retailers, or online to golfers, or to driving ranges and courses that need range balls.

Sure, there’s bad stuff in the water. There’s probably chemicals that have settled to the bottom and I stir ‘em up.
But I rely on the fact that the gear keeps most of the heavy sediment out. Besides,
if I don’t do it, somebody else will.

I’ve been diving a long time, and I’ve been in a lot of dirty water. When I was in the Navy I did salvage work in Pearl Harbor, and, believe me, that’s one of the nastiest pieces of water on the planet. All that waste run-off from the ships. For the most part though, knock on wood, it hasn’t had any adverse effect on me.

Of course, you’ve got your alligators, your snapping turtles, your water moccasins—it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.

I’ve been rammed by a 12-foot alligator. I’ve been chased by a 10-footer. I’ve been six feet away from an alligator in the middle of the pond and he just looked at me like I was stupid. It’s kind of a feel thing, like if you know that a dog likes you or not. If you’re afraid of the dog, the dog is going to know that. Same with alligators. You’ve got to act like you’re not afraid.

I am a golfer. My handicap is probably about a 7. So sometimes, yes, I find a ball and keep it. I certainly don’t try to keep all the [premium Titleist] Pro-V1s from the catch, because that would harm the company I work for. But let’s just say I haven’t paid for a golf ball since I starting doing this.

The best pond I do is probably No. 5 on the East Course at Grand Cypress. It’s a par 3 island hole.

I’ve pulled close to 6,000 balls in one day. A typical dive for me would be about six hours.

I make an OK living, although right now it’s kind of a struggle. The water gets colder and people don’t tend to play as much. But I’ve had a lot of other jobs, and the ability to be independent is probably the reason that I keep doing what I do. I can make $20,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on how much I work.

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