The Man Who Loved 8s

Golf is the only sport that allows you to doctor the game ball

Tom Brady must be thrilled. He can’t mess with the football before a big game anymore, but he won’t get in any trouble for doctoring his golf ball.

Brady plays only 12s—his jersey number—and on the other side are all of his Super Bowl wins, in Roman numerals. Johnny Manziel has the Heisman Trophy printed on his. A pastor friend of mine was given a dozen embossed with Luke 15:32: “He was lost and is found.”

Golf is the only sport I can think of that allows you to mark up the game ball any way you want. Sam Snead always played a 0. Jason Day plays 87s (the year he was born) with a kangaroo on it. 

You don’t even have to use a number if you don’t want to. Phil Mickelson has played a ball with only his logo on it—his famous jump on the 18th at the Masters (if you can call that a jump).

In fact, you should mark your ball. It’s part of the etiquette of the game. You do it so that when you find your ball sitting on a perfect tuft of grass in the middle of a gravel road, you can prove it’s yours. Or your opponent can prove it’s not.

I met a guy once at Ponkapoag Golf Course outside Boston who played only 8s. “They’re more aerodynamic,” he said. “There’s no edges of paint for the wind to catch.” He was serious.

Half the fun for us ballhawks is seeing what’s on what we unearth. I’ve found balls that say:

I Identify As In-Bounds

This Is My Pre-Provisional

I See You Suck, Too

Talk Birdie to Me

I once heard of a ball that was something of a flying library card. It read, “Lost by _____.” Then, underneath, “Found by _____.” Then, again, “Found by_____.” People would find it, fill in their names, use it, lose it and so on. Who says golf doesn’t recycle?

The Man Who Loved 8s ball hunting

Because it’s such a humiliating game, golfers tend to memorialize the cruel humor in it. I once found a ball deep in a thicket of trees that read, “Mistakes Were Made.”

There’s even an accident attorney who hands out golf balls that say, “Hit by this ball? Call…” with his name and number. It’s not a bad idea. Auto-body shops should get in on that racket.

My niece’s husband grew up in a Catholic family of nine kids. One year, when they were all grown, his mother sent each kid a dozen balls for Christmas. Every single ball was embossed with “Mom’s Favorite.” That summer, four of the brothers were playing together when they realized they’d all been duped.

You can’t change the size of your ball, and you can’t play without dimples (the real secret to always hitting it far and straight), but you can play any color you want. Bubba Watson used to play neon pinks. I heard about a guy who plays green balls, just to make the game even harder. I knew a man in Colorado who kept a dozen black balls so he could play in the snow.

Wait! I take it back. I can think of one other time when a ball from another sport was marked. It was during baseball’s pharmacy-enhanced, Barry Bonds home-run era. 

The San Francisco Giants’ stadium had a short porch in right field and, just behind it, McCovey Cove. Boaters, kayakers and even paddleboarders would patrol the cove in hopes of catching a piece of history. I spent an entire game out there trying myself. 

In the fifth, Bonds came up and launched “a long one to right,” the voice on the radio told us. Everyone began splashing about, paddling for position. Suddenly, there it was, descending from the lights: a baseball. It was going to splash down 20 feet from us.

Three or four boats were near it, but one guy wasn’t taking any chances. He dove in and grabbed it. 

When the guy came up for air, he was beaming—until he read what was scrawled on the ball in big, black letters: “SUCKER.”

Rick Reilly has been a Broken Tee Society member since 2023.