Fore The Love of Water Hazards

written by Sherry Nist

Water hazards are cursed by golfers the world over for their ability to swallow dozens of golf balls on any given day. Embarrassment and other hazards lying in and around the water urges most golfers onward, never to recover their lost balls.

Rarely does anyone stop to ponder the fate of these lost balls. If you stop to think about it, dozens of balls a day surely land in water. So, if they all remained there year after year would not the water be replaced by a mountain of lost golf balls?

Thomas O. Nelson (Thomas), born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1920, first started making money in golf ball retrieval as a teen on Long Island, New York. Thomas happened upon dozens of golf balls resting on the bottom of the Sound while fishing one day. Entrepreneurial in spirit, Thomas scooped up the balls and promptly sold them at the local Nickel & Dime store. From that day forward, he embarked on a lifetime, income producing hobby of diving for golf balls.

Thomas moved his family to Juno, Florida in 1959 to grow the business. As a pre-teen, Thomas’ son, Tom T. (Tom) began assisting his father in retrieving golf balls from water hazards on golf courses throughout Palm Beach County, Martin County and various locations in the Northeast of the US. Business soared when Thomas secured a contract with John D. MacArthur’s PGA National course in 1964. Seminole, Lost Tree, Tequesta, East Point, Jupiter Hills, North Palm Beach Country Club and Martin County Municipal were just a few of the other courses the Nelsons worked over the years. Business was booming and golf ball recovery was profitable enough to support two generations of Nelsons.

Golf ball recovery entails donning scuba gear and diving in various types of water hazards. It is complicated and can be dangerous to dive in low visibility sites. There are other hazards to the divers as well Tom sometimes swam in water with 10 foot plus gators. About 40 years ago Tom received an alligator bite one week before his marriage that required a dozen stitches. Years of ball retrieval led to back surgery for Thomas which brought Tom T. into the business full-time. Tom told me: “I was so proud of myself the day I landed the contract for the Yacht & County Club of Stuart. This success inspired me to move forward in the family business.”

There are residual benefits to ball recovery. I had a “lucrative side business in retrieving clubs”, says Tom. Many more odd items lie within the water hazards. There is “a lucrative side business in retrieving clubs. I was often paid for specific club recovery and any other clubs I found, I would resell. I even found a submersed 250 Yamaha at El Pomar in West Palm Beach which I tuned-up and resold.”

Tom has amazing memories of phone calls from Harry Pezzulo, Hospitality Chairman and later PGA Director of Golf at JDM Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens during the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. “One day I was called to retrieve Toney Penna’s golf bag from a water hazard. Tensions ran high when money that had been in the bag was not found. Upon closer inspection by Harry, the money was discovered in an interior pocket.” Tom also received calls to deliver recovered “hit away” balls to Perry Como whose “property was on the NE Point of the Jupiter Inlet. Perry enjoyed hitting long balls in to the water.”

Tom discovered Vero Beach one day in the mid 1980s when he and his nephew, Jack, were cruising around Indian River County on their road bikes. Riding east on County Road 512 and delayed by the stop light at US 1, Tom was awe stuck by the Indian River Lagoon views directly ahead. “I turned to Jack and said: I’m gonna move up here within the year!” A warehouse was rented in Winter Beach on 69th and Old Dixie Highway for the business and Tom’s sister and brother-in-law worked for him there while he was still based in Juno Beach.

While still in Juno Beach Tom secured retrieval contracts for the Dodgertown and Vista Royale courses. True to his word, in less than a year, Tom pulled up stakes in Juno Beach and rented an apartment on the Indian River in Wabasso. Tom found his dream spot when he purchased a piece of land just a few blocks Southeast of the intersection of 85th Street (Route 512) and US 1 in Wabasso.

Business took off for Tom in his new location in Indian River County when a Press Journal article came out (20 some years ago) around the same time he began advertising golf ball recovery services. Dodgertown was the first course Tom worked here and in just two week’s time he recovered 30,000 golf balls. Vista Royale reaped him 55,000 balls in the following three weeks. Soon he had contracts with every golf course in Indian River County. The first year he worked Sandridge, 150,000 balls were recovered and an easy 100,000 in each successive year. In his heyday, Tom was recovering more than 200,000 balls annually throughout Indian River County. “I generally recovered a few hundred balls per dive which took about an hour. Only a handful of folks in the State of Florida have been underwater longer than myself.”

The 2004 Hurricanes and Thomas’ death in 2005 convinced Tom to pull back from full-time ball retrieval. These days Tom can be found hanging around his “spruced up “Ball Barn” just to the east of the Wabasso Post Office. He still retrieves golf balls a few times a month at a very small number of private courses and is “settling in to the relaxed life of a waterman”.

Pay Tom a visit to pick up a dozen or two of your favorite golf balls so deeply discounted, you won’t mind losing a few. If you can’t stay off your computer, visit his eBay site (wabassotom) to window shop or grab a virtual bargain of some of his many recovered treasures.

Tom is thrilled to be slowing down in life but continues to enjoy “accommodating the needs of his long-term customers who have purchased their golf balls from him over the years”. He describes his work these days as a “fulfilling hobby”. His customers then and now are the “heart and soul” of his business and Tom has no plans to fully stop supplying them with their favorite brand of golf balls to lose in the water somewhere.

Sherry Nist