METHUEN — Oh, the hard-knock life of the driving range ball. Never a sniff of the British Open or the PGA Tour, never so much as 18 holes of miniature golf or even a one-day escape to a humble par-3 municipal course.
All around the world, millions of golf balls each year are born into lives never intended to leave the boundaries of a driving range. Then one day it’s over, the balls culled from circulation with dimples worn low or their steely skins gashed by miscreant lawn mowers. Though the vast majority remain whole with plenty of bounce left in their game, their days are finished, save for the scant few who find a place in the golf ball afterlife.
According to representatives at three area driving ranges contacted in recent days, there is a very limited market for old range balls once they’ve been turned out to pasture.
The Kimball Farm driving range in Westford, part of an outdoor entertainment fantasy land, sells off its used range balls, commonly referred to as shag balls, in 5-gallon plastic buckets. Cost: $30 a bucket for upward of 400 balls.
“I’m not sure what people do with them,’’ said Ed Kelley, co-manager of Kimball Farm’s driving range. “They’re good for chipping in the backyard, or to practice putting maybe. I’ve heard stories that some people buy them for their lake homes, tee them up on their dock, and drive them into ponds around New England. I don’t know if that’s true, but . . . ’’
For decades, the Nekoroski family has owned three Golf Country driving ranges in Massachusetts — in Middleton, Saugus, and South Easton. Jon Nekoroski has worked those ranges for more than 30 years and knows there is a very limited market for the used balls.
“We put the old ones in boxes and sell them for $10 a box, about 300 to the box,’’ he said. “Eventually, they go. If people buy them, I think they’re looking to go somewhere and hit them once and that’s it. Where are they hitting them? I don’t want to speculate for fear that it might not seem environmentally friendly.’’
A few years ago, Nekoroski sold 100,000 of Golf Country’s shag balls to a Texas firm for $1,000, a mere penny apiece. He believes the company shredded the balls and recycled the detritus into new golf balls.
“Not much money, obviously, but that worked out OK,’’ he said. “They paid for the shipping, which I’d guess would be at least a couple of thousand dollars for that many balls to go all the way to Texas. But that was maybe 7-8 years ago, and I tried them again without any luck. I don’t even know if they’re still in business.’’
A couple of times in recent years, Nekoroski has shipped some shag balls, along with spare drivers, to Afghanistan for US servicemen to drive into the desert. Gannon Golf Club in Lynn, a municipal course with no driving range, has done the same, as recently as last year, with members donating balls specifically for that purpose.
“The balls came in in droves when people found out what they were going to be used for,’’ said Rick Comfort, Gannon’s pro shop manager, crediting club pro Mike Foster for endorsing and shaping the program. “We had a young fella in here the other day, just back from serving in Afghanistan, and he said the guys love knocking them into the desert. And from what he says, the Afghans love ’em too. I guess they take the balls home with them like they’re some prized keepsake.’’
Here in the Merrimack Valley, Dave Kazanjian runs his family-owned Whirlaway driving range, started by his grandparents in the early 1930s, a few billion pitches, hooks, and slices ago. For reasons he’s not sure why, Kazanjian has hundreds of thousands of out-of-service balls on hand, some dating back decades.
“I think we’ve maxed out,’’ a somewhat miffed Kazanjian said, while squeezed in among a small mountain of retired balls tucked away behind the range’s headquarters on Merrimack Street. “I don’t think we have much room for many more. We’re trying to figure out what to do.’’
Kazanjian, who began working the range under his father’s watchful eye in the late ’60s, does not have an exact count of inventory. He’s positive he has at least 800,000 balls, most likely a million, perhaps as many as 1.2 million. Too many of a good thing is turning into a problem.
“We’ve got bags and bags back there,’’ said Kazanjian, eyeing the far reaches of an enclosed 30-foot trailer that houses the balls. “A lot of them are probably 30 or 40 years old. It’s scary how old some of these balls are.’’
The range opened in the early 1930s, just before the US began to emerge from the Great Depression, an era when small business owners held on to their capital goods as long as possible. It was “make do’’ America, when a pair of shoes and a sport jacket could last a man 15, 20 years or more. Joe Kazanjian, Dave’s father, was born in 1920, and for some 70 years worked the range until his death in 2004. Joe was never one to put an old ball in the trash.
“Each year now,’’ Dave explained, “we buy 20,000 or 25,000 new balls and put those into circulation. We’ve always bought some new balls, but I can tell you, my father had me and my brother Mark painting fresh red stripes on old balls for years. That’s just the way it was and, hey, you know, it worked. You’d be surprised what a fresh red stripe of paint can do for an old ball.
“But if you add in 25,000 balls a year like we have the last 15 years, and you’ve never thrown any out for decades . . . eventually, you’ve got a million balls and a storage problem.’’
At maximum, Kazanjian figures, he doesn’t need to keep more than some 400,000 balls in circulation. The working count might be half that, he said, if Whirlaway, like Golf Country, weren’t open year-round. But 10 of the range’s 36-plus tee boxes are heated, which allows hitting all winter long, no matter how deep the snowcover on the range’s 18 acres. When the snow melts, the balls are collected, a full spring’s harvest running as high as 200,000 or more.
Kazanjian wants the balls gone. He figures he likely could sell them off, albeit slowly, at the going rates like those at Kimball Farm and Golf Country. But he thinks charity may be the better, faster way for him to go.
“If [I] can sell some, great,’’ he said, looking out at the freshly mowed range. “But in this day and age, if there is some charity and we can do something to help out some organizations . . . that would be something that would help me feel, and help my dad feel, good. I know he’s watching . . . he’s here . . . he is out in the field.’’
Anyone with a charity-related idea can write Kazanjian: email@example.com. Whatever the cause, he’s willing to listen. There’s somewhere around 500,000 balls for the taking.
“I’m thinking maybe kids or vets . . . a program in Boston, or anywhere,’’ he said. “Someone might think, ‘OK, I’ll take ’em and start my own driving range.’ Well, I can tell you, we’re the oldest family-owned driving range in the country, and there’s a lot more to this business than just the balls.
No matter what the economy, sales of used balls have never been brisk, said Kelley, the co-manager of the Kimball Farm range. In fact, he said, a shrewd Kimball’s shopper might be able to negotiate a two-for-one special, depending on the day, the weather, and the good will of the salesman.
“After all,’’ he said, “the idea is to get rid of them.’’