Master Retriever: Golf Ball Hunting a New Passion for Baptist
Tom Baptist is one golfer you never have to remind to keep his head down. He’s always looking down and to both sides as he plays, searching for another Titleist, Top-Flite, Maxfli, Bridgestone or Callaway.
Baptist isn’t particular. If a golf ball has been lost, he’s looking to adopt it.
Baptist is a grandfather and a ball-hawker supreme. He loves to combine the two, often taking his grandson along for the hunt.
Everybody at Mid South Golf Club knows Tom. He’s the guy with the longest ball retriever on the course. He’s the guy the other members like to kid about having his ball retriever re-gripped.
Baptist was raised in Chicago and worked for AT&T in New Jersey until his retirement. He has a daughter, Melissa, who opened a veterinary practice in Pinehurst 17 years ago, and “we kind of followed along.”
Golf has never been more to Baptist than a pastime, but hawking golf balls has become a passion. He turns 78 on Wednesday and plays golf about five days a week despite an aching knee. He haunts the hazards of the Arnold Palmer-designed course before and after rounds and even on days when he doesn’t play.
But Baptist isn’t hunting golf balls to keep from having to shell out $50 for a dozen. He’s collecting them for worthy cause: He sells them and donates the money to needy children. When he needs new balls for himself, he buys them.
“They hold a tournament here at Mid South in December for the solicitation of donations and toys for kids at Christmas,” he said, “and I give all the proceeds to them. For each of the past three years I’ve given them $2,000. I’ve established a savings account so that I can try to keep giving as much each year as I have in the past. But with the recession and the cold winters, it’s stretching it a little to get to $2,000.”
Baptist sells the “U-pick ’em” balls to anyone who wants them, with Titleist V1s going for 35 cents and other balls for a dime each.
It’s reached the point where he doesn’t have to find all the balls himself. Other members of Mid South and Talamore bring them to him in bags and buckets. He has one friend who fishes the water fronting the 16th hole and gives him a bushel at a time.
“I go out when I feel like it,” Baptist said. “Everybody knows what I’m doing and I’m careful not to get in the way of anyone. I pick the times and watch the crowded days.”
Baptist would be out of business without his trusted ball retriever. “I have the longest one made,” he joked. “Some of the other guys kid me that I look like an old knight riding around with my lance sticking up in the air out of the golf bag.”
Baptist has some fun with the guys, too. “Some of our members have distinctive markings on their balls and I recognize them,” he said. “I’ll wait until some special occasion, like Christmas, and I’ll give them the ball in front of everyone. Especially if I’ve found it someplace embarrassing, like 20 yards off the tee.”
Baptist made a ball hawk of his daughter while she was a kid in New Jersey.
“I’d take Melissa to the golf course with me, and she’d walk in the edge of the woods from the tee to the green looking for balls,” he said.
Now he continues the tradition, taking his grandson, 10-year-old Vincent, to the course.
John McDougald, the director of golf operations at Mid South and Talamore, has placed a basket near the stairs in the clubhouse with a sign reading “Golf Ball Adoption.” Members frequently drop used balls in the basket, some even bringing plastic bags full. But while McDougald appreciates what Baptist does, he can’t help telling a funny story about him.
“I was out on the course early one morning and saw Tom hiding golf balls around one of the hazards,” he said. “I asked him what he was doing and he said he was ‘seeding’ the area. He was bringing his grandson out to look for balls that day and wanted to make sure there would be some to find.”
“I figure I’ve raised close to $10,000 for the kids over the years,” Baptist said. “That’s lot of golf balls, but I’ve had a lot of fun out there fishing around.”
Anyone with some old golf balls gathering dust in the garage who would like to give them to the “adoption agency” can give Tom a call at (910) 215-0782. You can bring them out to Mid South or he’ll come to your home and pick them up.
But don’t be surprised if he asks you to scatter them around the bushes in the yard. After all, he’s got a brand-new grip on that extra long retriever.
Contact Howard Ward at email@example.com.
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