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Giving golf balls a brand new look

David and Steve Blocher have no plans to quit the business they run from a small backyard shed.

By APRIL YEE
Published August 11, 2006


SPRING HILL - In the tiny, airless shed of this otherwise unremarkable back yard, a father and son polish golf balls with soft brushes.

Once, these wayward balls plopped into ponds on courses across the state, and then a scuba diver scooped them up and gave them to David and Steve Blocher.

The father-and-son team gives the balls new life, scraping off the mud and ink to reveal shiny white spheres ready to be launched by another golfer.

In unmarked crates that only they know the names of, they toss Nikes, Callaways, Pro V1's. The beat-up ones will be sold for pennies to be hit far into fields. Unblemished ones, packed into neat sea-green egg crates, will sell for $23.99 a dozen.

In a week's time, the Blochers lay hands on 20,000 balls from 17 courses in the state. Golfers across the country buy them at half price or less at T & D Golf Stores in Tampa and Oldsmar. Some customers pull the Pro V1's right off the delivery truck.

In 1987, this father and son entered the niche market of golf ball recycling, a business with few small-time family owners like them. David Blocher is now 29 his father calls him a boy, and Steve Blocher (his son calls him his boss) is 52. They plan to sweat in this shed for years to come.

Last Friday , David Blocher took a break in the shed, where two fans produce weak breezes. Egg cartons adorned by small handwritten letters were piled to the ceiling. Steve Blocher slowly dipped a ball into the secret cleaning solution and polished away invisible dirt with a fine brush.

The goal is to make it look as though it's never been hit.

The father and son spend hours here in this shed. This is not what they thought they would be doing 19 years ago. Once upon a time, Steve Blocher managed sales at a Ford dealership. In those days, his son wanted to become a professional baseball player.

David Blocher was 10 years old, and he tagged along as his father played golf. Steve Blocher realized that his son had a knack for finding balls at each tee, so he promised the boy a quarter for each ball.

Then they started prowling courses, sometimes as late as 3 a.m., combing the shallow ponds and ruining more than a few pairs of sneakers. They were chased away a few times, but that didn't stop them.

One Saturday morning Steve Blocher dropped off his son at Babe Zaharias Golf Course in Tampa with a chair and blanket to hawk his wares. Soon, David Blocher was taking home $350 each morning.

"When I started to see how much money he was making, I thought there had to be a market in this," Steve Blocher said.

Then, in 1993, he learned his sales job at Ford would soon require him to work every weekend. He decided to make his son's business his own.

That first year, he took a $25,000 pay cut.

He and his son started cleaning the balls in their garage, experimenting with different techniques. It was hard getting the balls perfectly clean. Today they use two different solutions - both secret.

Now, they have more golf balls than they can handle. They no longer wade in the ponds. Instead they hire Shannon Baxter to dive for them.

On Monday , Baxter suited up at World Woods Golf Club at the northern end of the Suncoast Parkway. He had been planning to join the military. But the summer after he graduated from high school in St. Petersburg, he started diving for the Blochers, and the money - a dime per ball - kept him in the business.

As golfers teed off at World Woods, a trail of intermittent bubbles rose to the surface of the green pond. Baxter's bare hands were collecting his catch. The blue net bag around his neck could hold 500 balls, 50 pounds in weight.

Once, Baxter felt a tug on his bag. He let go, and sure enough, an alligator was holding onto his strange harvest, spilling the balls back into the water. It took a year for him to return to that pond.

Apart from Baxter, the business has remained the father and son: just family. When they're not working together, they play golf and poker. (Dad wins.)

"We're best friends," David Blocher said. "We've gone through a lot of stuff over the years."

More than a few times, David Blocher tried to change careers. He changed oil at a car shop, cleaned carpets for Sears, waited tables. This year he laid tile. But the business - and his father - always called him back.

"We didn't see eye to eye on many issues," his father said.

"But those issues have been resolved. I plan to do this for the rest of my life," David Blocher said.

That day in the shed, Steve Blocher took a break between balls to smoke a cigarette. He would rather renovate and resell homes, the kind of work he says is his true calling.

But the money now is so good he hasn't been able to pull out yet. The hours and location - just down the road from the Spring Hill home that he rents to his son - are ideal.

Someday, he hopes his son will take over the business. David Blocher has a knack for it. Once, he negotiated contracts to dive at seven courses in six months.

Some days, David Blocher sits under the sea-green egg crates for 15 hours. He can put out 10,000 balls in two days. He likes working on his own terms, with only his father as a boss, if he even counts as one.

He doesn't have to shave or put on a shirt - just walks into his back yard, turns on the radio, and does what he's always done.

April Yee can be reached at ayee@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6117.

[Last modified August 11, 2006, 06:37:33]


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