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The Jobs of Summer

For golf ball retrievers, profit amid the rough

Ron Vacca inspected his golf ball inventory, which he keeps in egg cartons in his garage.
Ron Vacca inspected his golf ball inventory, which he keeps in egg cartons in his garage.Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

MELROSE — Since his retirement in 2007, Ron Vacca hits the golf course most weekdays. When he comes home for lunch, his wife, Sylvia, doesn’t inquire about his score.

“She asks me how many balls I found,” he said.

For years, Vacca has made a side project out of his habit of poking around the edges of the courses he plays for stray golf balls. He takes them home and stores them in neatly stacked egg cartons, which take up a good bit of space in his one-car garage in Melrose.

Since the couple moved into their ranch house from the big home in Everett where they raised their six children, Vacca has advertised his little seasonal business with a hand-lettered sign — Golf Balls for Sale — at the end of his semicircular driveway.

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It might be more of a hobby than a job, but the kitty Vacca keeps from his sales is not insignificant.

“It’s a nice extra dinner,” Sylvia said on a recent day as she stood in the doorway from the kitchen to the garage. When they go visit a son in Hawaii, Ron Vacca says, they’ll use the golf ball money to pay for their car rental.

In fact, golf ball retrieval can be big business. Forest Rothchild of Charlton turned his love of underwater diving into a new career during the economic downturn of 2008. Today, partnered with a resale company in Connecticut called WaterDog Golf, Rothchild oversees a network of about 20 teams that make routine dives in water hazards nationwide. The company says it resells between 10 million and 15 million recycled golf balls each year.

In his travels, Rothchild encounters plenty of retrieval duffers like Vacca: “Honestly, almost every course I go to, there’s usually a member or somebody who lives on the course who does it in some scale.”

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It can be a secretive business. Like an angler with a favorite fishing hole, golf ball retrievers don’t always want to share their tips about where to make the biggest scores.

His divers have various arrangements with the courses that invite them in, Rothchild says. Generally speaking, a diver will pay the course between 5 and 10 cents per ball.

“It’s found money,” he said. Though some exclusive courses simply don’t want the intrusion, many more are happy to find a use for the extra cash.

New top-of-the line golf balls, such as the Titleist Pro V1, can sell for as much as $48 a dozen. Vacca sells cartons of salvaged Pro V1s for $15 apiece; his pricing system runs as low as $6 per dozen for ordinary balls such as Dunlop or Top Flite.

His customers, he says, run the gamut, from experienced players looking for good deals on the best balls to golfing neophytes who stop by with their mothers.

For Rothchild, the diving holds more appeal more than the golf courses. Although he used to play the game in Las Vegas when he worked for the Mirage casino, “I had a set of clubs stolen, and that kind of broke my spirits a bit.”

Now he saves his swing for his team’s end-of-season tradition: a match in which each diver is required to use only the clubs he found while searching the depths of water hazards for balls.

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Vacca, 78, isn’t quite so adventurous. He typically finds lost balls by tramping into the woods or checking under the brush along the fairways.

“I don’t think he’s going in the water,” Sylvia said with a wry smile.

Her husband got the golfing bug when he was 12, when his father sent him and his older brother to a caddying camp near Lake Sunapee, N.H. After assuming ownership of his father’s fence company, he made time to golf at least once a week.

Vacations usually involve a game or two; he’s golfed at the historic St. Andrews links course in Scotland and he once golfed in daylight until midnight in Alaska during the summer solstice.

These days, Vacca sticks closer to home, playing weekday mornings with Riley’s Raiders, a group of retirees, at Mount Hood in Melrose.

His avocation is a recurring source of needling among the group, he says.

“They laugh at me up at the course. They’ll say, ‘Hey Ronnie, I got some balls for you!’ ”

But Sylvia didn’t flinch when he packed up his golf balls at their old house in Everett for the move to Melrose.

“At one time, I had probably 3,000 balls,” Ron Vacca figured. “Right now, I have about 1,600.


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.