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Wednesday, May 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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This retrieval job all wet

Seattle Times staff reporter

AL ANDERSON DONS SCUBA GEAR to go after poorly hit golf balls that land in ponds and in the Sammamish River. He has been at it for 40 years and figures he has recovered nearly a million. He especially enjoys finding a freshly hit ball, surfacing and tossing it back to the grateful golfer.

REDMOND - Al Anderson has capitalized on golfers' bad swings for more than 40 years.

Since his boyhood on the Sammamish River in Bothell, he has dived for golf balls. He figures he has recovered almost a million.

On this particular morning, Anderson is in scuba gear, feeling his way along the bottom of the large pond at the ninth hole of the Bear Creek Country Club. The water is too murky to see the balls, and he is operating strictly by feel. Like an adept picker in a field, he is rapidly filling an onion sack.

His head pops out of the water and he sees that he has visitors, among them P.J. Potuzak, the course superintendent.

"P.J., you having any problem with pump intakes that you want me to take a look at?" he asks.

It's an offer to de-clog any plumbing problems in the pond. Potuzak replies that everything is fine and Anderson resumes his harvesting after showing off a Titleist that looks so new it might have had a one-swing first life.

Anderson's "real job" for 28 years has been as a Bothell firefighter. Twice he has donned his golf-ball diving gear to recover drowning victims.

Anderson, 54, started diving for golf balls when he was 12 and his family operated the Downriver Marina on the Sammamish River next to Wayne Golf Course in Bothell.

Al has strong ties to Wayne, where his father, Harold, helped start the course and his grandfather, Carl, built the clubhouse. Al's brother, David, is a state legislator who owns the par-3 Island Greens Course on Whidbey Island with his wife, Karen.

Al Anderson's scuba tanks have been hit by balls while he was in the water, but he never has been injured. He often has been underwater and seen a freshly hit ball sink. He takes special satisfaction in surfacing and tossing the ball back to the golfer.

"They actually get thrilled when they get their ball back," he said.

Once, he recovered the golf bag and clubs of a golfer whose self-propelled pull-cart went into the river.

Anderson sells balls to pro shops at 50 cents apiece and has dealt with a broker who sells them to cruise ships and overseas. Those balls sell for as little as 15 cents each.

He pays courses such as Bear Creek for the right to collect balls; but no fee is necessary at Wayne, which has the river running through it.

After recovering balls from a course, Anderson takes them home and soaks them in a special solution. Then he puts them in the family washing machine with towels to control the noise.

"It still sounds like a marching troop going through," he said.

How long can a golf ball stay in water and not begin to deteriorate?

Ned Bellinger, a regional sales representative for Titleist, estimates that the two-piece surlyn-covered balls used by most golfers stay good about two months in water. He estimates that the softer-cover three-piece balls preferred by low-handicap players are good for about a month. Anderson concurs with those estimates.

Anderson's favorite find was pure luck, a needle-in-the-haystack experience. About nine years ago, his daughter, Jaimie, was inner-tubing far upstream on the Sammamish River and lost her locket.

"I had no idea she had lost it, and I wasn't looking for it," Anderson said. "I was diving for balls at the ninth hole at Wayne and just happened onto this tiny heart-shaped locket. There's a muddy bottom, limited visibility and yet somehow I stumbled across it. It was unbelievable."

Jaimie still has the locket.

The balls Anderson finds are among the estimated one billion lost annually worldwide. Most balls cost between $10 and $40 a dozen.

A spokesman for a company called the Second Chance, considered the biggest ball-retrieval outfit in the nation, says more than 100 million golf balls are recycled from hazards each year.

The best balls wind up being resold, often with an "experienced" sign on the bin in golf stores or pro shops. Many recovered balls wind up at driving ranges.

The most famous liquid hazard in golf is the pond that surrounds the 17th green at the Stadium Course of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass outside Jacksonville, Fla. Golf Digest says approximately 120,000 balls get dunked each year on the hole during 40,000 rounds, which is an average of three wet balls per golfer per round.

Divers recovering balls at Sawgrass share the pond with alligators and occasional water moccasins, something Anderson doesn't have to do.

Anderson, an 11-handicapper, plays with what he finds. What's the last time he purchased a golf ball?

"Maybe never," he said.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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