5 words to live by: Anything for a golf ball

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By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

There is no rhyme or reason to their ways. Ball hawkers, by nature, wander off the beaten path. Even if their golf shots are in the fairway or on the green, hawkers’ natural habitat is in the water and the weeds.

Hawkers take to their favorite course to golf, but their inspiration to keep going back is ball hawking — defined by John Vawter as “the fine art of finding a golf ball that the normal person cannot find or has no interest in finding.”

“It’s nothing logical,” said Vawter, a minister from Arizona. “It’s in your blood.”

Vawter, 73, has owned a home near Bend Golf and Country Club since 2001 and returns to Central Oregon for four to five months each year. He has played golf for 25 years and is a regular hacker with a 20 handicap, though he considers himself more of a hawker. While far from the first to use the term “ball hawker,” Vawter (as well as some of his old friends) literally wrote the book, printed in 2015, on the unofficial subsport of golf — “Anything for a Golf Ball: The Art of Finding Lost Golf Balls.”

“Here’s the mystery,” Vawter posed recently while playing a round at the country club and treading through an out-of-bounds part of the course. “How can a white ball disappear in all this brown?”

That is a mystery that ball hawkers so frequently solve with relative ease, rendering that puzzle a one-colored Rubik’s Cube.

Last summer, for example, Vawter found 2,000 “lost” golf balls while in Bend, he said, a year after locating 1,500. Vawter has been a hawker for nearly 20 years, since he was golfing in Minnesota and witnessed his uncle, a solid player, wandering in the rough even when his shot was in the fairway.

“That,” Vawter said, “was my first realization about ball hawking.”

According to research performed by the Danish Golf Union in 2009, 300 million golf balls are lost or discarded by American golfers every year — ample feeding to prevent hawkers from extinction, and to deter them from spending $30 (give or take) on a dozen balls. Tracing a player’s golfing ancestry to hawking is not difficult. With the following criteria, we will be able to definitively answer the question: Who here’s a hawker?

”Why would a guy write a book about golf ball hawking?” Vawter wondered. He answered the question with another question, which is the same answer to the question of why hawkers hawk: “Why not?”

Hawkers are a strange breed. They are like a prison bloodhound sniffing out escaped inmates. They are daredevils, in a way, fearless when a wayward ball is resting near a rattlesnake. And hawkers are thrifty, saving thousands of dollars on golf balls as they typically return from a round with their supply doubled.

The rule of thumb for hawking — otherwise known as fishing, retrieving, and “rawking” (which involves a person not golfing but riding in a cart to hawk; rider + hawker = rawker) — is simple: Four balls should be found for every dollar spent on a round of golf. The litmus test of hawking is similar: If a golfer has bought a ball in the past two years, he or she is not a true hawker.

Like golfers, hawkers carry yardage books as they play their favorite course. Rather than indicate the distance to the green, however, those books point to hawking hot spots. Hawkers are experts who do not simply LOOK for lost balls but sense them, adding to the idea that hawking is a gift rather than a learned skill. While many golfers will meander into the woods attempting to locate their errant shots, hawkers know exactly where those shots went — and they expect to find at least two lost balls in the area, working quickly and efficiently to maintain pace of play.

Hooks and slices make golfers scowl; those same wayward shots make hawkers smile. Because the phrase “bad shot” to this breed means “another ball-finding opportunity.” They, of course, own ball retrievers, and those long-handled tools are cherished more than their putters — some trusty retrievers are re-gripped; some are protected by head covers even snazzier than those worn by the hawker’s own clubs. When their pockets are full, resourceful hawkers tie off their jacket sleeves and fill them with found balls. Hawkers do not attempt to avoid scratches and scrapes from bushes and tree limbs. Rather, they wear the wounds as badges of honor from the hunt.

Hawkers are innovative. A player from Minnesota, Vawter mentions in his book, would bring his dog along and pretend to throw a golf ball into the woods. His dog would then return with a mouthful of golf balls. Speaking of canines, in 2006, a golf club in Wales awarded a lifetime membership to a mixed terrier that had found and returned more than 3,000 “lost” balls over the previous five years.

Hawkers are not selfish, nor are they hoarders. Sure, Vawter noted, retired PGA Tour player Frank Beard, now a full-time hawker, has a closet full of a thousand golf balls by the end of each hunting season. Yet Beard, like many in the hawker clan, donates them all to a junior golf association. Like Beard, Vawter, who has a special pocket in his golf bag for found balls, possesses several boxes of inventory. Those boxes will be packed up and shipped off to the golf programs at Burns High School (Vawter’s uncle was a superintendent for the ­Harney County School District back in the day) before Vawter heads back to Arizona.

“I couldn’t keep them for myself because I found 2,000 last summer,” Vawter laughed. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them.”

Maybe so, but the underlying reason for hawkers’ unselfishness, Vawter said, is because they are “wonderful, caring people.” Oh, they can be weird, like a golfer Vawter encountered in Arizona who, inspired by a story detailing a rattlesnake that swallowed four golf balls, decided to create a rattlesnake breeding farm, thinking he could train the reptiles to swallow golf balls as hawking tools. (Jury is still out on the results.) But they are indeed selfless, such as another Arizona golfer who, according to Vawter, donates more than 5,000 balls each year to a local kids golf organization.

Again, hawkers can be thrifty, such as the player in Colorado who traded 300 found balls for a dishwasher. Hawkers can be well-known. In an interview several years ago, Padraig Harrington, the 2007 British Open champion, recalled growing up in Ireland and making pocket money by finding and selling golf balls.

Hawkers always have their heads on a swivel, like Vawter did at Bend Golf and Country Club. They are always searching, attempting to come out of the round as the winner of an unofficial contest to see who can bag the most found golf balls.

While golf-focused players gauge their success by their score at the end of the round, hawking-focused golfers measure their day by found balls. Certainly, every golfer wants to play his or her best. But the art of finding lost balls is the inspiration for hawkers to continue returning to the links. They get cut and bruised and wear down their spikes climbing over boulders. They attach nets to remote-controlled cars, Vawter notes in his book, to retrieve balls from the surface of frozen ponds during the winter.

Hawking comes down to five words: anything for a golf ball.

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