AT FIRST GLANCE it would be easy to mistake the giant figure rising out of the lake by the ninth green as some sort of Floridian equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, come to judge the putting of the startled trio assembled by the pin.
It stands nearly 7ft tall, is covered head to toe in a strange rubbery material and, as it lumbers through the reeds towards them, it is making mewling noises as if in pain.
But this bizarre apparition is no Godzilla. It is Glenn Berger, former chef, postman and Iraq War veteran, and today half-baking to death in his wetsuit. He is here for their balls.
The market for recycled golfballs is worth tens of millions of dollars a year. Hundreds of companies compete to get their hands on what has been described as “white gold”.
But the real money is to be made in Florida, with its 1200-plus courses. Thanks to the limestone geology, most of these are pitted with lakes, and their millions of visitors breathe fresh life into the phrases “slicing” and “hooking”.
At last count there were more than 100 full-time lake divers who made a living from scouring the Sunshine State’s watery courses. And with good-condition balls, the gold standard being Titleist Pro Vs that fetch more than $2 each, it can look like easy money.
But that’s forgetting one thing – the alligators.
“There are two types of golfball divers in Florida,” explains Glenn as he loads his pick-up with scuba gear, “those who’ve had bad experiences and those who are about to.”
We’re outside his company Bustinballs’ warehouse, prepping for today’s dive. Glenn, a smiley giant who looks as if he should be playing professional basketball, got his start in the business nearly a decade back.
He now ships nearly 2 million balls a year, trawled solo from 30 different courses to countries across the world.
Glenn has a glint in his eye, reminiscent of the old sea captain in Jaws, when he talks about the state’s estimated population of 1.25 million gators. “Y’see, the old ones won’t bother you. They know who you are. They’re used to you. It’s the young ones you have to watch out for.
“They...” He breaks off in mid-sentence and looks around, as if worried. “We shouldn’t really be talking about this. It’s a bit too much like tempting fate.”
Like many who make their living on or near the water, and especially those who come into almost daily contact with creatures with a man-eating reputation, Glenn is superstitious.
He has a routine before setting out on a day’s dive. If anything, no matter how small, breaks that routine, doubts begin to bubble up.
“My work bag wasn’t where I left it one day. I knew then that something was going to happen when I was diving,” he says. That something was a gator bumping his tank, and Glenn getting out of the lake so fast that “it was like I was walking on water.
“I used to have a spotter keeping watch for them,” he says. “When I’m in the water, the alligator will be about 10ft away, and every move I make he will shadow me. It’s not quite stalking, more watching.
“After about 45 minutes, they’ll get bored and leave. Now the one in a thousand, they’ll see me get in the water and come straight over and begin bumping my tank. If that happens, I’ll surface and get out.”

WE ARRIVE AT THE LAKE by the par 3 ninth hole of the Colonial Country Club, Fort Myers, around noon. The course is quiet, as we’re bumping up against the edge of the end of the busy season that runs from October to mid-May in south-west Florida.
Glenn is confident, however. It’s been six weeks (the average time he visits each of his contracted courses) since he last dived the lakes here, and he reckons there will be a few thousand balls to find. “They’ll likely be good balls as well,” he says. “This is a private course.
“On public courses people often use cheaper balls, but here there is an element of fashion, keeping up with your friends. If they use Pro Vs, then you will as well.” He grins: “Which is good for me.”
Before wading in, Glenn scans the lake for what we all, myself and the photographer included, are now referring to as “the things that cannot be named”.
Nothing is visible, and Glenn reckons that even if there was he might risk it. “They usually back off. They’ll shadow you for 10 minutes, lose interest and swim away.”
He sounds a lot more confident than he did back at the warehouse. Although as if remembering that even now a gator could be waking from a doze by the fairway and fancying a swim, concern creeps across his face: “But if you do see any when I’m down there, make a lot of noise.”
Glenn spends 15 minutes beneath the surface combing the lake’s muddy shore by fingertip, but there are no signs of gators. A man slices a couple of balls into the lake – more money for Glenn – and a woman from Liverpool, who has hit her shot into the sand by the water’s edge, asks why we’re staring at the lake.
Right on cue, Glenn surfaces, almost stumbling forward under the weight of the balls he has collected.
He makes his way slowly to the shore and lays the net, which contains nearly 700 balls, on the grass.
“This one is worth 25 cents at the most, this one maybe a dollar.” Glenn is picking through the muddied balls, assessing their value.
He makes a quick estimate of what he has just made, though he won’t tell us. “This is a very competitive business.
I can’t give my secrets away. A local paper once said that I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I wasn’t, but I was going through a divorce at the time, and it caused a few problems.
“Gators are just one of the things you have to worry about in this business.”
Another is the lengths to which some divers will go to poach each other’s take. “I’m legit now,” Glenn explains, “but many, many years ago I wasn’t. I was nighthawking (creeping onto courses after dark to liberate lake balls) as much as I could.
“People still do that. I’ve had balls stolen after leaving them on the truck, and had people pretending they’re with my company come onto my contracted courses and help themselves.” He laughs: “It’s a pretty competitive game.”

THERE IS ALSO THE MATTER OF FRAUD. Glenn is unusual in the lake-ball world in that he pays a flat fee to each of his courses, and a percentage of the balls retrieved go to the club pro.
Others pay per ball, which can lead to under-counting weighted in favour of the diver.
“I think my way is fairer. The club know they’re getting a cheque every three months, something they can bank on. It’s unrealistic to think they can come out and check how many balls are collected. They haven’t got the time.”
And if alligators, theft and fraud aren’t enough, there are other hazards, such as cars dumped in lakes.
“I’ve found a couple,” says Glenn, “and the golden rule is never to put your hand inside. My friend did once, and he touched a body – the guy had decided to commit suicide by driving his car into the water.
“Since I heard that, I just report it to the police then leave it alone.”
And there was one time when Glenn was getting into the water as a woman was about to take a shot. “I asked if she’d mind waiting till I submerged, but she ignored me, took the shot and hit me in the leg. She came running over shouting: ‘Don’t take my ball, don’t take my ball!’ Incredible.”
Glenn explains why he dives in a way that not all divers might consider the safest. “I have no back-up regulator because it can dangle and get caught up too easily, and I don’t use a depth gauge.
“But the main difference is that I carry a lot of weight. When I’ve collected the balls I can be carrying, with my gear, up to 160 pounds.”
His tanks are mostly camouflage-painted. “All the guys who’ve been doing this for 30 years or so say that the gators are attracted to brightly coloured tanks, the yellows or blues especially. And if my camo paint begins to flake on the tanks, that’s usually when the gators become more curious.”
Wetsuits range from 1 to 7mm – “it can get surprisingly cold in Florida” – and the water is murky, but as he can collect 700 balls in 15 minutes he can surface, store them and go back down.
“Other places I’ll be down longer, because it can take a lot of time searching by fingertip in the mud. During the peak season I’ll dive around four hours a day. I can collect 5000-6000 balls easy in that time.”
We get back in the buggy and start back to the car park. While telling us how a fellow-diver had his hand punctured clean through by a gator bite (“It was his own fault, he wanted a picture to show his kids, and was throwing stones at it”), Glenn spots a man in a wetsuit by another of the course’s lakes.
Suspecting him to be a diver encroaching on his territory, he floors the accelerator. Glenn buttonholes the guy and gives him the third degree.
It turns out that he is working for a dredging company keeping the lake from silting up. But as Glenn says, it’s a very competitive game.
“I had a call last week from a representative of a Saudi Arabian sheikh who wants me to come over and be his personal diver,” Glenn told us.
“The idea is that when he hits his ball in the lake, I dive in to retrieve it. We’re a bit hung up over details. I can’t absolutely guarantee that I’ll come up with his ball, and sitting around on a golf buggy in Saudi temperatures is going to be very very hot!”

BACK AT THE WAREHOUSE, Glenn puts the balls he has collected through what he calls his “hush-hush process”. This three-stage procedure employs equipment and chemicals that Glenn has either made or modified himself.
“It’s taken a lot of trial and error. I’ve spent hours experimenting to find just the right formula. I’m not about to give it away.” As we watch the balls being lifted and cleaned, Glenn, unprompted, begins talking about his time in Iraq.
His face loses its customary smile and he looks troubled. “It wasn’t good. I saw people killed and I may…” But he stops there and returns to what is now a more comfortable subject – alligators.
“I really thought one was on top of me one time. I came flying out of the water, and fell onto the green screaming: ‘Get it off me, get it off me!’ Someone rolled me over and was shouting: ‘I can’t see any blood, I can’t see any blood!’
“People ask me why I do this, and I always say that it’s hard but enjoyable and it’s an OK living.
“But will I be doing it in 20 years’ time No, I’ve been lucky so far, but you can’t always be lucky, can you”