Confessions of a golf ball thief

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Time to confess.

I did it. If you’re that golfer who was driving the sixth fairway at Ballinger Golf Course on a lazy summer’s day 50 years ago, I was the one who bolted out of the trees and stole your ball.

I can still hear you screaming obscenities at me, see you and the rest of your foursome breaking into a run and chasing after me. Well, it wasn’t much of a run, but it did appear you were moving faster than you had in some time. Hell bent on catching me, of course, so you could mete out some kind of duffer’s justice.

It was a mad moment of juvenile mischief on my part, unforgettable to this day and part of Ballinger Golf Course lore.

Ballinger Golf Course was a kid magnet. Not the course itself so much, but the wooded area on its east side that spanned roughly 18 blocks north to south and ran east from the fairways to steep hillsides and the neighborhoods that sat atop them — including the not-yet-completed housing development where my parents bought a home two years earlier.

The woods there were the perfect place to build forts, play army and just basically be an explorer, or budding naturalist. The area was filled with ponds and marshes where we caught frogs, polliwogs, newts and salamanders. We roamed the grassy areas looking for garter snakes. We crept along the two big rocky areas, seeking that rare prize 12-year-old hunters of all creatures great and small covet: skinks. For the uneducated, skinks are brown lizards, very quick and very hard to catch. Grab them by the tail and the tail comes off in your fingers. Kinda gross. Kinda cool.

The woods also held another prize. Golf balls.

The trees, brush and tall grass along the fairway were teeming with lost balls. So, my friends and I became treasure hunters. Many of the balls were scored or gashed, but you also found gems in pretty good condition. Occasionally you came across the Holy Grail of all lost golf balls: a Titleist in mint condition.

Soon we discovered the graveyard of misguided golf balls — Lake Ballinger. On hot summer days, we grabbed our swimming masks and air mattresses and floated along the lake banks bordering the sixth fairway, diving for golf balls, tons of them, on the lake’s muddy bottom.

Of course, golf ball hunting wasn’t without its perils. We constantly had to elude the groundskeeper, who chased us in his tractor or a truck, and sometimes on foot.

But it was worth it. There was money to be made. We sold the balls we found to golfers when they arrived at the sixth green. Most fetched a quarter or less. A mint condition Titleist might bring 75 cents.

It was the pursuit of cash that brought me to Ballinger Golf Course that lazy summer’s day 50 years ago. No mischief was planned. Like it sometimes happens with 12 year-old boys, my misadventure began with a dare. Not a Double-Dog dare, mind you, nor an infamous Triple-Dog Dare, just a simple: “Bet you’re too chicken to run out there and grab one of those balls.”

I eyed one. It seemed from my angle to be placed well, about 15 feet from the green and toward me where trees provided cover. There was a slight bend in the course there and I judged the ball was hidden from the golfers’ view. I judged wrong. As soon as I snatched it, cries of rage rang out.

Ball in hand, I bolted back into the scrub — just skimpy tree cover at that part of the fairway with mostly tall grass and weeds and a dense blackberry patch behind them. My buddy was laughing and racing lickety split back down the dirt road that divided the brush and the wooded swampy area where the trail back up the embankment began. He could make the trail. I couldn’t. I was cut off by enraged golfers charging madly off the fairway toward the dirt road.

So I hid. There wasn’t much cover, but I ducked into the tall brush and stayed low, out of view. I found a mound covered in thick, tall weeds with a stump on its top and an indentation on its backside. Tall grass jutted out from the top of the indentation, creating a shallow cave-like depression. Below me was an area covered in thick brambles. This would have to do. I pushed myself as flat as I could in that depression and waited. My heart was pounding like it never had before. I was flush with adrenalin.

I could hear the four golfers sweeping the area behind me, raking the brush with their irons. One cursed and ranted as he went. Eventually, they got to within yards of where I was hiding. One walked over and stood on the top of the mound where I was hiding. I looked up and he was right there, decked out in ugly lime green pants, holding an iron at rest on his shoulder. How could he not see me? I was maybe two feet beneath where he was standing, a wimpy strand of tall grass my only shield.

“Nothing here.” And he walked away.

I stayed in hiding probably at least another half hour before I had the courage to peer over the mound, and then high-tail it home.

To this day, I think Mr. Bad Pants had discovered me, but through an act of kindness, didn’t divulge my hiding place. Thank you for that.

I never stole another golf ball, but Ballinger Golf Course continued to entice. Just too much fun to be had wandering around there exploring and experiencing the adrenalin rush of being run off by the groundskeeper. He never caught us, but the caretaker for the adjacent Nile Temple Country Club did once.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Nile’s caretaker chastised after catching us hunting golf balls on the other side of the fence that separated the country club’s property and Ballinger Golf Course’s sixth hole.

“What do you think this fence is here for?”

“To keep the ducks in?” one of my buddies smirked.

“Smart-aleck kids.”

We were let go after promising never to return, a promise we never kept. The allure of Ballinger Golf Course and the woods behind it was just too great.

Gary Nelson is a copy editor in The Herald’s Sports department.

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