When the hazard is par for the course

In the murky depths of golf-course lakes, Steve Helms retrieves the evidence of golf's frustrations.

February 07, 1999|By RAUL DOMINGUEZ, | RAUL DOMINGUEZ,,SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

A trail of bubbles rises from a lake at San Antonio's Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and rolls toward one of the golf greens.

From beneath it surfaces Steve Helms, wearing 100 pounds of diving equipment and carrying a bag holding hundreds of wet, dripping golf balls.

Helms is not among the millions of golfers with embarrassingly bad handicaps. Rather, he is an entrepreneur who has built a thriving business from the suffering of those duffers: retrieving errant balls from lakes.

After being laid off from an accounting job and nearly losing his home, Helms says he found peace and success in his submerged world. His family-run Underwater Golf Ball Recovery Co. has serviced most courses in this south Texas area since 1991.

Every day, the certified diver scours the murky depths of golf-course lakes and ponds for balls plopped there by errant shooters. He generally fills several bags, which hold 600 balls each, on every underwater excursion.

He also regularly finds golf clubs. Some clubs likely slipped from golfers' hands, but others obviously were discarded in frustration. Helms once found a set of clubs spaced 2 feet apart at the bottom of a lake. He figured that someone had walked along the banks and slowly ended his relationship with golf the day before.

Most often, Helms feels his way along the bottom and sides of the lakes because the silt and dirt kicked up obscures his vision. There are times, though, when the lake is as clear as a summer's morning.

"When water flows, it moves the dirt so that I can see," Helms says. "If I can see, it's like finding little Easter eggs along the bottom. There's a lot of joy in it. Everything is just convenient. They are all over the place. You can't grab them fast enough. You don't have enough hands. It's fun."

It's a peaceful and apparently profitable existence, although Helms would not say precisely how much he earns reselling the balls. And there's little chance business will dry up soon.

There are 26.5 million golfers in America; only 22 percent can shoot a round lower than 90. That means millions are familiar with the sound of balls splashing into the water.

"The most incredible thing to me is how many golf balls people lose," says Dan Budzius, director of golf at the Hyatt Hill Country resort. "It is truly fascinating -- the amount of balls he pulls out of lakes."

Some of the balls are sold back to the courses, but the majority are sold to companies that then sell to retail stores such as Wal-Mart or to overseas markets.

While money is certainly a factor in his vocation, Helms says he stays on the job because he enjoys being in the water and loves being his own boss. It also has allowed him to relive the joys of his childhood.

Growing up in Portsmouth, R.I., Helms began retrieving lost balls from a railroad track that divided the nines of a nearby course.

"As a boy of 8 years old, I would go and dig balls out of the bushes, trees and along the rough," he said. "As kids, on the 11th fairway, we would yell out from our picnic table, 'Do you want to buy golf balls?' "

With his siblings, Helms also sold snacks and beverages, but the balls were the hottest sellers, earning him several hundred dollars every summer. But as he grew older, he knew there was bigger game out there.

"I always knew there were balls in the water," Helms says.

Before long, Helms was searching for balls in the course's water hazards. He even persuaded his girlfriend and future wife, Sue, to help him.

"On our dates, we would go out in the lakes," he recalls, chuckling at the memory. "We would get in that water at night with the snakes, muskrats and other rodents."

He gave it up, finally, served a four-year term in the Air Force and eventually became an accountant in San Antonio. When he lost his job, he says, it was "like a boot in the rear end," and made him take a hard look at his life.

"What have I ever done that could be fun?" Helms says he asked himself. "What have I not done but wanted to do? I always wanted to jump out an airplane in a parachute and always wanted to dive. I looked at myself and knew I always wanted to be in the water. I enjoyed it."

A family business was born.

Sue Helms does the washing and sorting of the balls; their son, Michael, does the shipping.

As peaceful as it can be, diving for balls also has its risks.

He hasn't been seriously injured, but Helms has run into bridges, a golf cart, a dead deer and the sharp spines of catfish underwater.

But never, at least so far, into an ex-golfer.

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