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Bubbles and Balls

While swimming around a golf course, there's no telling what you might find -- or what might find you.

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"My rule is if it feels like a ball, I put it in the bag. If it squirms, I let it go."

Steve Loibner is talking about his livelihood, which is diving for golf balls. There's nothing too sophisticated about it, to hear him tell it. "It's the Helen Keller method," he says. "All feel."

As we talk, Loibner's standing waist-deep in a pond on number 11 at the Marion [Arkansas] Golf and Athletic Club. It's a course where the rough is deep -- and has waves. In fact, it seems to this observer that the course is more water than land.

"Oh yeah," says Loibner. "Marion is my favorite. You can put a ball in the water on every shot. I'm here every month, sometimes twice a month." They don't call this place the "Marion Monster" for nothing.

Loibner calls his business Bubbles & Balls, and he's been at it for 22 years. He began with four courses near his home in Benton, Arkansas. He was a teacher then, and ball-diving was a perfect summer job. "Yep," he says, "I taught biology and anatomy -- and I coached girls' basketball and softball. I've got five state championship rings." Which is good, since he's managed to lose four wedding rings plying his watery trade. In 1998, he "hung up his chalk" and went into the ball-recovery business full-time. Now he has 115 courses as clients, spread out between Oklahoma City and Memphis.

His biology background sometimes still comes in handy. "I spend most of my days flipping turtles and goosing frogs," he says. Surprisingly, he says snakes are not really a problem. "They normally just try to get away from you," he says, adding that there are a couple of places he won't work "during the mating season." The biggest problem, though, is leeches.

Leeches? "Oh, yeah," he says. "Leeches love a golf ball. They rest on them and wait for a host to come by." Like, say, a diver. Which is why Loibner covers every inch of his body, except for his face.

He finds lots of other things too. Like shopping carts, bicycles, skateboards, guns, and at least five clubs a week. "Some I donate to a charity like First Tee," he says. "But most of 'em aren't in real good shape. Normally, when a club hits the water, the shaft is bent or broken, if you know what I mean."

Sadly, I do.

"Hold your balls higher," says the photographer. Loibner grins and lifts the mesh bag obligingly. He's heard all the jokes. It helps to have a sense of humor when balls are your business.

Usually, Loibner splits the balls he finds with the golf course. Then he puts the ones he keeps through a four-step, 24-hour cleaning process before selling them to various retailers, golf courses, and driving ranges.

He'll sell you a bag too: $25 for a bag of 100 "pond run" balls. Whether that bag has more cheap Top-Flites or top-of-the-line Titleists is anybody's guess. Balls recovered from exclusive country clubs are more likely to be a better quality than balls he finds at a place like Marion. And that's no reflection on Marion, which is a nice course. It's just wet and anyone who plays here knows they're going to lose their balls. They even give you three balls before you start to play.

Loibner cautions that his job isn't for just anyone who can strap on a scuba tank. "It's black water down there," he says. "People think it's an Easter egg hunt, but you can't see anything. He also likes to tell about the human-sized catfish he accidentally mounted. "I came straight up out of that water," he says. "Fast."

And sometimes the hazards are human. "Once, when I came up out of the water, a ball hit me on the back of the head," Loibner says. "I went back down and laid low until I figured they were gone. A little later, I went into the clubhouse and there's a couple sitting at a table. The woman looks at me and says, 'I'm mad at you.'

"I said, 'Why?'

"She said, 'Because my husband's ball hit you in the head on the 9th hole.'

"'And you're mad?' I said.

"'Yes,' she said. 'It bounced off your head, onto the green, and my husband birdied the hole. I had him beat until that happened.'"

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