By David Droschak
The most sinking feeling in all of golf is watching a perfectly good ball – maybe one you’ve hit just a few times – dive head-first into a lake, never to be found.
There’s a better than even chance your Titleist, Callaway or Nike will not only be recovered, but used again by another golfer who will pay up to 70 percent off your purchase price.
Of course, used golf balls don’t have the same allure as a pristine brand new dozen, and by no means are perfect, but a Pinehurst area firm comes awfully close to giving its customers that “similar-to-new” feel as the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Used Golf Balls.”
One of the more important and innovative golf executives in the Sandhills can’t be found behind a pro shop counter or in a board room, but in a small, non-descript office in the very back of an even more non-descript warehouse off of Highway 5.
Then again, there’s nothing fancy about used golf balls, is there?
Sitting in his cubbyhole, Sam Snowdon, the founder of Recovered Balls International, is never far from his laptop or Internet connection as he helps coordinate his team of golf ball divers, four e-commerce sites, an eBay and Amazon store, along with distributorships in other countries.
Just like most things in the last five years, used golf ball sales have taken off online, with “pick-your-own” type of establishments disappearing.
Much like Snowdon’s former store off N.C. 211 in West End, where golfers used to be able to “get their hands dirty” by sifting through different brands and grades in what was a gold mine of used balls.
Snowdon closed that store in February, along with its ball cleaning facility, when he formed a partnership with Nitro Golf out of Stuart, Fla.
Snowdon said Nitro will process about well over 25 million used golf balls a year, more than triple the 8 million he used to sift through each year.
“I brought the Internet to them, they really didn’t have an Internet presence,” said Snowdon, who founded his parent company in 2000. “They are very skilled marketers and are very well connected with the major retailers. But they became an overnight Internet player when the two companies became one.
“It was a good fit. I’ve had my eye on it for a while. This has always been part of my exit plan, to merge the company. I’ve landed on my feet again when a lot of people in golf haven’t. I am counting my blessings.”
Snowdon worked in his first business life as a poultry engineer, building processing plants all over the Southeast. Snowdon kept his connections to chemical engineers, so he hired engineers and to help invent a cleaning process that could whiten golf balls, but not strip off the outer coating. Thus, a formula was created that separates Snowdon’s firm from most of his competitors – washed and cleaned balls without altering the manufacturer’s original specifications that play great.
“I wanted that top coat of the balls to stay intact, but I wanted them as white as they could be, Snowdon said.
Snowdon’s online sales also didn’t just target high-end brands, but catered to all comers, which helped move inventory from divers in what he calls “a tricky business.”
“Any idiot can sell a Pro-V,” Snowdon said. “And that’s the mistake everybody makes. They don’t put enough emphasis on selling everything else. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve developed markets for every ball, even range balls. The classic mistake people make is they sell off all the top end balls and the low end ones just pile up. You’ve got to find the channels for the mid and low end. That’s your profit.”
But the ball cleaning aspect is just a fraction of the business. Recovery of the product is key, and Snowdon, a diver himself, has some of the best in the business – a network of divers if needed that span all 50 states.
Don’t ask Snowdon for any names, though. His team of divers is a closely guarded secret because of the competitive market for experienced underwater stalkers of those “dirty white pearls” – used golf balls.
“Our divers are not just divers, they are golf-ball divers,” Snowdon said. “There is a difference. We employ the best ones in the business. This is their trade with many years of experience.”
Divers pocket between 6-8 cents per ball. Some can drop off as many as 20,000 on a good haul to Snowdon’s warehouse, where he now ships them off to Nitro’s plant in Florida to be cleaned and distributed.
He also accepts balls from the general public each Tuesday, and locals can get a 10 percent discount online at www.usedgolfballdeals.com by entering the code local10 at checkout.
Snowdon tells a chilling story in passing about one of his divers who last year was recovering balls in Savannah, Ga., when he encountered a large alligator.
“They arch their back and vibrate their scales on their backs and water flies everywhere, it’s sort of a mating dance,” Snowdon said. “The diver was on the bottom and he said it sounded like a jack-hammer went off. He looked up and it was a 12-footer.”
Snakes are much, much worse, the divers say.
When it gets too cold to enter the water, Snowdon’s work is not complete. He maintains a very unique, massive roller system with 1,000 feet of cable to rake up balls at the bottom of country club lakes.
“We can run it in the dead of winter in 16-degree weather,” Snowdon said. “Ice can be falling off the cable and we are getting balls. That’s a real plus because the courses are down. It’s like a range picker, but it was designed to go under water. It hooks up to two tractors and we pull it back and forth. It’s amazing. It can reach across a 1,000 foot lake if need be.”
All of Snowdon’s used balls are sorted by brand and grade. “Whatever your flavor of the day or week is we can ship it to you,” Snowdon said.
Snowdon’s divers currently cover about 500 courses in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, and he would like to add 1,500 more along the East Coast.
Each course negotiates its own deal with Snowdon – ranging from cash for each ball or range ball exchanges. He said clients include very rural municipal courses to the finest resorts in the Southeast.
“There are a lot of people fighting to be the biggest in this business. We’re just fighting to be the best,” Snowdon said. “All the guys in the executive team at Nitro have been somebody in previous careers so this is a non-ego venture for all of us. We just want to do a good job.”
In addition to all his duties, Snowdon has spent several months recently working on a new range ball that is close to manufacturing stage, a series of multi-colored balls that he said will compete with the likes of Top-Flite and others in the range ball side of the used ball business.
“It’s 100 percent return on investment and there is nothing else on a golf course that can do that,” Snowdon said of used golf balls. “If anybody snarls, it’s like you’re not really a good business person.”