Having a ball: For Golfball Monster, used golf balls are a driving business
For the past 30 years, Jim Johnson has made his living selling used golf balls. Lots and lots of golf balls. By his own estimation, his company, GolfballMonster.com, has sold between 60 and 70 million golf balls nationally and internationally over the course of its existence.
However, while the company deals in golf balls of all brands and varieties — from those used by the pros, to balls used only for practice — the balls it sells aren’t brand new. Quite to the contrary. Johnson stocks his inventory with thousands of used balls from individuals who collect errant balls from golf courses and then sell them to Johnson for him to clean, refurbish and ship out to his large client base.
“I love bad golfers,” Johnson says jokingly, and for good reason. Even a cursory glance inside his recently opened outlet store, located at 2134 U.S. 411 South in Maryville, reveals dozens of boxes and several sorting trays filled with used golf balls that are either newly arrived or ready to be shipped out. Although many are sent to him for resale, he spends 10 days a month traveling to different cities throughout the country to buy golf balls from individuals who collect them for that specific purpose. This past week he went to New York to purchase over 400,000 used golf balls.
However, on this particular Friday he was holding court at the 8,500-square-foot warehouse and storefront he bought last November for about $450,000, a space he shares with a store that sells beef jerky. Otherwise, it’s fairly nondescript, apart from his sign along the highway and a colorful company van parked alongside. Still, the formula seems to work. “Golfers love beef jerky,” Johnson insists. “It’s a perfect combination for Tennessee.”
Johnson appears to have learned that lesson quickly. He, his wife and six children permanently relocated to Maryville in December from California after visiting the area on vacation for several years. He says they were drawn to East Tennessee not only by the scenery, the lifestyle and the excellent school system, but also because it afforded him a central location from which to base his mail order business. He opened the outlet on April 1. Because he offers free shipping, both for those who send the product to him and on the orders he ships out, the centralized location helps cut down on costs.
Frank Newman, a resident of Royal Oaks, was visiting the store for the first time and admiring the array of wares. The used balls sell for half the price of new balls, ranging from $5 to $20 a dozen, depending on the brand — Nike, Titleist, TaylorMade, Pinnacle, Bridgestone, and Calloway being among the better known manufacturers. “They clean up real well,” Newman noted. “I live on a golf course, so this is a bargain for me.”
Apparently he’s not the only one. Johnson says he ships out nearly five million golf balls annually, a third of to customers in the U.S., a third to the international market and a third to golf courses. He also sells to wholesalers who, in turn, sell them to larger retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. He currently employs a staff of five and claims annual revenues of “just north” of $1 million, which he hopes to grow at 5 percent annually.
While dealing in used golf balls might seem an unusual niche — there are only a handful of companies in the same business in the U.S. — Johnson says that there’s really no difference between a new golf ball and one that’s been refurbished as far as performance is concerned. The clean-up begins by tossing them in one of a half-dozen old washing machines he maintains on premises for that purpose. While they make plenty of noise and occasionally disable a machine, Johnson says he can easily buy a used washer for $100 and get the balls looking as good as new. He pays an average of 30 cents for each ball, but that can vary, depending on the manufacturer.
Johnson came by his specialized trade naturally. He attended UCLA on a golfing scholarship, and after graduation, became a caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club, one of the most exclusive courses in Southern California. Soon after, he met a maintenance man who made a habit of collecting stray balls and reselling them. Johnson bought a batch and sold them to the owner of four golf courses that his then-girlfriend knew. In his first year, he turned a $2,000 profit. He then took a job as a representative for a sporting goods company, but after three years, his golf ball business was doing well enough to allow him to devote himself to it entirely. At first, he sold his wares on Amazon and eBay, but now he sells exclusively his goods through his website, GolfballMonster.com, and his local outlet store.
With a current inventory of some two million balls, Johnson has a shortage for goods. A network of freelance divers, dealers and individuals ensures that his business is never in short supply. While the balls sometimes come in waterlogged or covered in dirt and grime, they go out looking as good as new. To the average golfer, they play like new as well, Johnson insists.
“It’s just one more way of staying ahead of the curve,” he adds. “Literally.”
Photos by Tom Sherlin
Tom Sherlin is a veteran photographer at The Daily Times, who has won multiple awards from SPJ, TAPME and TPA for his work in capturing spot news, features and sports in both stills and video.