Christopher Buono’s life was spiraling out of control a little more than a decade ago, until his grandfather gave him the push he needed.
“I am a bit of an adrenaline guy. When I was in my teenager years, I was an aggressive skateboarder,” Buono said. “I hung out with the wrong crowd, wrong group and substance abuse was an issue, but luckily my grandfather Henry yoked me by the neck and pulled me in and said ‘Get into this water and start getting them.’
“Diving gave me an identity. After that, I wasn’t just Chris, I was a diver. I was not only a diver, I was a blackwater diver. I was a golf ball diver. It was strange and it just helped fill that void. Drugs and drinking … It was too much. I was overindulging. I am sober and I am happy.”
The 29-year-old from Loxahatchee comes from a long line of divers, between his grandfather, and his Uncle Dave. Buono said between the three of them they have 100 years of experience diving for golf balls in murky waters up to 45 feet deep.
“I love it,” said Buono, who is one of several divers employed as a sub-contractor by Birdie Golf, a Margate-based company run by Dale Updike that sells used golf balls to sports stores and individuals.
The company cleans and grades the balls. Divers are generally paid 5 to 10 cents a ball.
“It makes me proud that I was even able to get the opportunity to dive and get sprinkled with that much knowledge,” Buono said. “Anybody can dive, but when you are dealing with guys who have been doing it for so long and know the bottoms of these lakes that no other people have ever been in. We are exploring unchartered territory. The majority of society may never see the bottom of this lake or whatever is down there.
“Diving gave me an identity. After that, I wasn’t just Chris, I was … a blackwater diver. I was a golf ball diver. It was strange and it just helped fill that void. … I am sober and I am happy.”
“The difficulty really all depends on course maintenance. When I first started, I was beaten down by the weight. At that time I weighed 155. With the balls and gear alone, it weighed more than me. Until you get balanced in the water, and you actually find that balance and you are not fighting your weight, that is the difficulty factor.”
Whether there is hydrilla or invasive grass, Buono said there are a lot of factors dealing with vegetation that can present challenges. In some areas, the moss is really thick and sometimes you can’t even see the water. He said sometimes the grass is really solid and you can’t retrieve balls.
“Overall difficulty is 50 percent mind and 50 percent body,” Buono said. “It is definitely split in half.”
Another worry is the danger of alligators in the water. Three years ago, while diving at Boca Municipal, he had his closest encounter. He was struck by the tail of a gator and was winded. If you are not aware of your surroundings, he said, you are careless.
“The worries are real,” Buono said. “As long as the gators are not being fed by the homeowners … I always encourage them not to feed them. In a lot of the courses down here, the trappers are really good, so when they do get over X feet, the trappers do their job, and they get them out.
“For the most part, they tend to stay away just like when you are on a golf course and you come up to a gator and ‘splash’ they go away in the water,” Buono continued, “It is the ones that don’t splash that are getting fed and that’s when they can tend to be a little bit feisty and you can really see it in the gator, so you have to be aware you can’t just go strolling into a lake and just give it a look. You have to dot your Is and cross your Ts, and it doesn’t hurt to be with someone else and have a partner.”
Divers are contacted by Updike and he sends them out to the courses. They service about a dozen courses throughout South Florida.
“A lot of golfers will say, ‘Hey I donated a couple,’” Buono said with a grin. He also said most of his balls are found near the ladies’ tees – really bad drives from the men’s tees. “You get those same answers like, ‘Half of those balls must be mine.’ I tell them, ‘If that is the case, keep playing. I am just the guy that comes out here and flips the pond upside down.’”
Buono said the length of a stay at a course ties into work ethic, and he will work five to seven days a week.
“Personally, I love it,” Buono said. “I love being on the golf course. I love the atmosphere. I love the attention. I love the water tuxedo. I love golf. I don’t want to see them hit them in. They will say, ‘I got another one in there for you.’ I like bogeys, birdies and pars. I am a golfer, too. I want to see good golf.
“I get a thrill to go to work. I feel that anybody that can go to work and enjoy what they do is a blessing. It is vital. It is a huge part of your life, and life in general is enjoying what you do for a living.”
Buono said he also cleans up the water while working, often carrying an extra bag for pollutants when he dives. It is not a glorious profession. Being an independent contractor means no health insurance and few benefits. ESPN reported in 2015 that golf ball divers made between $50,000 and $100,000 a year for the sunken treasure.
“People see what I do and that all think I make a million dollars and it is just not the case,” Buono said. “If you get hurt, you are paying for it. My grandpa has been diving since he was 19, and he’s 81. My uncle is 30 years in the business, and he is still tanking. I would say I am definitely a million-ball diver, maybe 10 million or 20 million balls in my 11 years.
“You just don’t throw on scuba gear and try to go out there and dive,” he said. “It is just not safe. It is incredibly dangerous for someone who is inexperienced, let alone experienced. There is a lot of discipline in the business. I am not going to say I am Crocodile Dundee or anything like that. We don’t make a million dollars. The average diver, unless you are the guy at the shop who will put their money away … me personally, I ain’t driving a Ferrari.”
Buono said he is not the greatest golfer.
“I am nowhere near a scratch golfer,” Buono said. “I have contributed quite a bit. At least there are no worries about having to buy balls.”