Diving for golf balls a lucrative business — if you can avoid the gators

Updated Feb 16, 2018
Steve Martinez of Birdie Golf comes up with both hands full of golf balls after spending only a few moments in a pond at PGA National Tuesday, February 13, 2018. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

When Stephen Martinez says he’s had a tough day at work, he’s not kidding.

Twice, he’s been bitten by alligators. A snapping turtle almost busted his face mask. Snakes slither by. His murky workplace has almost zero visibility.

His job? Scrape out the golf lakes up to 45 feet deep for those millions of wayward golf shots.

“I bring people out for training. I go in the water. I come up. They are gone. They get spooked,” said Martinez, wearing a glistening black wet suit in the knee-deep lake at the 18th hole at PGA National Resort & Spa, where The Honda Classic starts this week. In each bare hand, he’s holding four golf balls that took him about a minute to find in the muck.

The 55-year-old Pompano Beach resident, a native of the Bronx in New York City, is a subcontractor for Birdie Golf, a Margate-based company that employs about six divers. The company cleans, grades, separates and sells the used balls to individuals and sports stores, said Birdie Golf owner Dale Updike.

Scraping the waters a week before the Honda Classic, Updike admits it takes a special person to dredge ponds considering the weeds, wildlife and murky waters.

“You can’t be claustrophobic. It’s not like the ocean, where you have a lot of visibility,” said Updike.

Martinez is paid between 7 cents and 10 cents per golf ball (depending on the brand and wear and tear) to dive into the dark recesses of ponds laced with pesticides and predators. That includes snakes, gators, leeches and mosquitoes, not to mention bacteria from stagnant pools. Wet suits add protection but aren’t gator proof.

His biggest day was a few years ago when Martinez said he pulled about 5,000 golf balls in one day from a local course. That’s $500 for the day at 10 cents per ball.

“There were so many golf balls because divers are only let in once or twice a year,” said Martinez, who plays the bass guitar in a rock and roll band when he is not diving. He has a pet Teacup Chihuahua named Jaco, named after the famed bass player and former Oakland Park resident Jaco Pastorius.

At the PGA National Champions Course, there will be plenty of balls to clean out after the tournament — there’s water on every hole. And even the best of them find the water hazard every now and then, especially the par 3, 190-yard 17th that always presents a lot of problems.

Martinez said both times he was attacked by alligators he was bitten on the left arm.

The first time was in 2006 at a golf course in Boynton Beach. The second was four years ago at Bonaventure Country Club in Weston.

Martinez dives in Florida ponds during the fall and winter. During the spring and summer, he travels to Texas and the northeast United States to work.

It was during a dive at Bonaventure when he was attacked by a 10-foot alligator.

“She bit down on my left arm. She pulled me out about 25 feet. We were in the middle of the lake. She rolled me about four or five times,” Martinez calmly recalled.

As he began to lose strength, Martinez thought of his two children, Stephen, now 15, and Savanna, now 18.

“I thought, no way was I going out like this. I wanted my kids. I kept punching the ‘gator in the eyes with my right arm as hard as I could. She let me go,” said Martinez.

Martinez was treated and released at a nearby hospital for puncture wounds.

He remembers the attacks each time he dives. And while it’s not a spectacular coral reef off the Florida Keys, Martinez does serve a greater purpose.

“I’m not Superman. This is what I do. I suck it up and do my job to provide for my family,” Martinez said.