The Scavenger Society

Digging deep into golf’s most relentless subspecies: the ballhawk
Photo by Stephen Denton
Photo: Stephen Denton

On the surface, Uncle Guy had everything. Sophistication. Elegance. Privilege. Wealth. He was a Groton and Harvard man. A decorated fighter pilot. A Wall Street pillar. An acknowledged wit. His family loved him. His friends adored him. He was the rock of several communities, not the least of which was the one that formed the center of his golfing universe, Newport Country Club, where he played for some 70 of his 81 years, 14 as club president.

Surfaces can be deceiving, though. Uncle Guy didn’t have everything. He never—never—had enough golf balls. It’s not that he lost many; he just possessed an obsessive drive to find those he had no prior claim to.

Lucky for me. 

I met him in the early 1990s when his niece, whom I’d happened to fall head over heels for, took me to Rhode Island for a family vetting. He was just as Abby described: patricianly imposing with a piercing stare, a chilling “no” and—the chink in his stately armor—an odd laugh he’d suppress after releasing two grunty syllables twice: “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” Yet he loved golf and I loved golf and, in one of those inexplicable golfing miracles I’m eternally grateful for, we became—to the clan’s astonishment—inseparable on the course.

The first summer, he graciously arranged for me to give Newport a few whirls, but never deigned to add his presence. By the following summer, when it seemed more inevitable, he invited me out for a round. Given that his world and mine barely touched beyond mutual affection for a) his niece and b) the Royal and Ancient endeavor, I knew this was a test—of my character, not my game. 

I held it together splendidly through two holes.

We caught the foursome ahead by the third. While Uncle Guy waited at the tee, I walked up about 30 yards, ostensibly to study approach angles, but, in truth, to maintain composure. And then I saw it: the result of another golfer’s horrible hook, beckoning from a thicket. I couldn’t stop myself; I am who I am. With my driver, I tried to excavate the forsaken Titleist, but no luck, and—oh, no—Uncle Guy was walking toward me. Damn.

He showed no hesitancy whatsoever; he was who he was, too: a ballhawk. Who’d have guessed we both belonged to that subspecies of golfer dedicated to retrieving our own errant output and thrilled to repurpose the lost causes of others? With a towel to protect his pink linen trousers, he dove in—and came out with the ball I’d  spotted, plus three more. And a satisfied smile. “Every shot should make somebody happy,” he pronounced. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.”

And so we were off on our decade-long Easter-egg hunt. If golf tendered us an essential connection, our shared penchant for salvaging its flotsam sealed the deal. No round—and there were scores, blessedly, until his passing in 2004—was ever complete without prowling the rough, prospecting the hedge lines, crawling under bushes and peeking into the pond by the 16th green. We incorporated hawking into our matches, using the tally on individual holes to settle halves with a standard side bet on total haul. It was all in good fun, certainly, but, looking back, something else about our ballhawking seems only too evident.

Since the rules of golf demand we play our mishits, and play them where they lie, there’s a bit of hawk in every golfer. We feel a lift when we spot a ball peeking out in the right vicinity, sorrow when we pick it up to find it’s not ours, joy when we realize it’s a keeper anyway, resignation as we search on, relief in identifying our own at last and utter, utter despair when we recognize its surroundings are, as they so often are, untenable. Most golfers accept the routine as a vexing part of a vexing game. For extremists—like Uncle Guy and myself—the way we approach this pursuit reveals much about who we are in both our golfing lives and in that shadow existence outside them. 

I think I’m safe in saying it always has. 

Golfers have been looking for lost balls for as long as they’ve been losing them. In the game’s beginning, each hand-packed sphere was a product of such intensive labor that it carried, beyond a golfer’s hopes, a price on par with the hickory that propelled it. Lose a ball, file for bankruptcy. The featheries—and the gutties that replaced them—cost such a fair farthing that caddies were known to let sleeping balls lie on purpose. Sure, a caddie might be fined for “losing” a ball on his watch, but he could then turn around and resell the allegedly lost implement—often back to its rightful owner—for a profit. 

Money, or lack thereof, compelled me to develop a hawk’s eye when I began playing as a kid on Long Island, and the habit became a boon to the cheapskate within me. On the other end of the economic spectrum, Margaret Curtis—of Curtis Cup renown—famously donated her annual bounty of balls to a good cause, as compulsive hawks still do. Hence, we serve an essential role in golf’s ecosystem: We are the great recyclers. Altruism aside, Curtis possessed the underlying compulsion to seek. How else to explain her proud catalogue of 132 different makes in the more than 500 balls she salvaged one summer?

In the beginning, Uncle Guy simply kept what he found, but, in time, he gave most away. As family patriarch, he was always much better at giving than receiving, which is part of why I think he loved hawking so much: For him, a found golf ball was a gift with no strings attached. There was nothing to reciprocate, no thank-you note to write. 

I asked my friend Vick Kelly for insight. He’s a triple threat on this: psychiatrist, savvy stick, resolute hawk. Yes, he stressed, finding a golf ball is like getting a present. Then he plunged into a darker recess of the golfing mind: “For many golfers, the ball represents a little piece of the self, and you don’t want to leave a piece of yourself lying around the golf course.” Unless, he adds, “you project your bad shot onto the ball itself, in which case it might not be worth looking for at all.”

Funny how golf keeps reminding us of our bad shots. Finding our own promotes continuity and the hope of something better ahead. Finding what others abandoned reminds us we’re never completely alone on the course—or in our imperfections. And finding the really bad ones—the ones we pluck from environs so dense that no GPS can track us—lends special consolation: Someone’s hit one worse than we have, and given us a present for our perseverance. 

Like Uncle Guy said, “Every shot should make somebody happy.” 

Uh-huh. Uh-huh. 

Jeff Silverman has written for Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure Golf and Golf World. His 12th book, Merion: The Championship Story, won the USGA’s Herbert Warren Wind Award in 2013. He will search for a golf ball anywhere but the bottom of a pond.