For those who don't know, the rules of golf only allow you to carry 14 clubs. But in my case, I do carry a 15th "club" in my bag: a ball retriever. If you don't, this little story might convince you that you should, too.
I don't know anyone who likes paying for golf balls. But most people do enjoy playing with nice, clean, new-looking balls. By carrying a 15th club that is a golf ball retriever, you can play with others people's nice new golf balls!
I carry JB's nine foot model, and its telescoping poles and simple head design have worked well for me. Expect to spend $15 to $50 for a retriever, depending on the length you desire, the design of the head unit, and the construction quality. Whatever you spend up front, with a dozen golf balls costing $20 to $60, your retriever will quickly pay for itself.
As an extreme example, I recently played at a course that features a creek that meanders between the last two holes. As I was playing alone, and way out in front of everyone, I took about 20 minutes to wander along this creek as I played the last two holes (see note below) I didn't walk the creek's entire length, nor did I retrieve every ball I saw. And my retriever is only nine feet long, so there were balls I could see but couldn't reach.
* Note: This is not something you could do during a normal round. During a normal round, I just walk near ponds and creeks, and if I see a ball, I'll quickly scoop it up while my partners are busy prepping for their shots. Using this technique, I can still collect up to 20 balls a round. If you're delaying the game due to ball collecting, you're doing it wrong.
So how many balls do you think I collected in that time, given those restrictions? Two holes, 20 minutes. 10? 20? 30? 50?
Nope to all; try 83 golf balls. Eighty-three balls. From two golf holes, in no more than twenty minutes. Of course, the balls don't look like much when you collect them, as seen in the image at right (click for a larger—and more yucky— version).
But that's OK, they're really quite easy to clean up. You could, in theory, run them through a dishwasher cycle, but I've never tried that. Instead, I soak them in a pail of water, and use a generic Magic Eraser pad to clean them. These things work amazingly well on even the most crud-encrusted golf balls. Pretty much everything other than scuff marks and the occasional tree-bashing-imprint come right off.
How well do they work? Here's a look at one ball that I cleaned from a prior batch; the total cleaning time was maybe 30 seconds or so:
Not too shabby! So I took my pail-o-balls from today's efforts and sat out back, listening to music and cleaning the crud off each ball. Yes, it's a bit of a time investment, but I find it oddly relaxing—and it's still nothing compared to the cost and effort of buying brand new balls.
When all was said and done, I had 78 usable golf balls—five of the original 83 were cut or otherwise damaged. Of the 78 usable balls, 13 are brands/colors that I don't play, and maybe another 15 aren't really new looking, so I'll donate all 28 of those to a kid's camp or similar.
Still, that leaves 50 very nice usable golf balls, including 19 Titleist Pro V1s. Not bad for a total time investment of an hour or so. Here's a look at the collection, sorted by brand: