Brett Parker is a 53-year-old golf ball diver based in Dallas. He grew up working on a cattle ranch in Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, before moving to the United States in 1986. He’s been diving for golf balls across the United States since 1988. After he retrieves the golf balls, they are washed, repackaged and resold to various companies and distributors throughout the world.
“My best day was in Illinois about four or five years ago. I pulled 22,400 golf balls in one day by myself. Top divers can generally pull 10,000 a day on a really good day on virgin territory. But when courses are worked properly, your average diver is looking at 2,500 to 3,000 a day.
“My first dive ever was when I was 24. Some drunk guys had dropped the motor off the back of their boat—it was a big 250cc motor, and that’s a very expensive thing in Africa. It was in crocodile-infested water and they were willing to pay $1,500 for anyone who would go in and get it. In those days an assistant farm manager was making about $200 to $300 per month, so, well, ‘I’ll do it!’ It took about 40 minutes to find the motor and the rest is history.
“Diving is about zero visibility. There is the claustrophobia of being in blackwater and touching things, moving things that bump you. When you touch a log underwater or a log bumps into you, you tend to push it away, but when you bring your hand back you create a current, so in about 10 seconds this log hits you again. Everything underwater, we’re all as one. And if it’s alive, it’s afraid of you as much as you are of it.
“You have to get regular tetanus shots and deal with sinus infections in this business. There’s lots of bacteria, fertilizers, etc. There are alligators, snakes, 60-pound snapping turtles, rolls of barbed wire. I’ve been caught up in fishing line and actually had to cut off my suit underwater because I was so pinned up. I most definitely almost drowned that day, but that was in my early years, just not being aware of my surroundings. Accidents that have happened in this business, I would say 95 percent are drowning.
“Then there are the nighthawkers—people who make a living by stealing golf balls at night because they don’t have to pay the courses or taxes. They’re basically stealing my paycheck. I would say just in the Texas region alone I’m losing half a million balls to them each year. So when I see dead animals in a pond, dead ducks, etc., that excites me, because nobody wants to mess with it, even the nighthawkers. The skankier the water, the better. Even in 8 inches of muck, the balls can be sitting there by the thousands and they don’t even know it.
“I’ve always had a knack for being good at feeling things in the dark. I guess that goes back to my cadet military boarding school. It was a very tough school in Rhodesia. The seniors ate most of the food and juniors got the scraps, so you often went hungry. We would get off the school property at night and do fruit raids. You had to know how to feel fruit in the dark—which was ripe and which was green. It was a different life.
“I’ve found cars, dead bodies, a 50-ton dump truck, guns, knives, rifles, antique jewelry, antique golf balls, old collectible bottles. So many golfers throw their equipment in a rage into the lakes. We’ve recovered so many cars that we’ve stopped pulling them out of the water; we just remove the license and give that to the police. I always pop the trunks when I’m down there just to make sure there are no bodies. I’m still hoping to find a briefcase with a million dollars, but I haven’t been so lucky yet.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.