June 12, 1989 12:00 PM

Some years back Jim Reid was working a water hazard on a golf course at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., and as he surfaced, caked in mud, a grinning foursome was waiting to greet him. “I guessed these guys had been drinking beer,” recalls Reid, “and one of (hem said, ‘Well, look what we’ve got here. A Mickey Mouse diver!’ Another guy saw me getting out of my wet suit and blinked. ‘I’ll bet Mickey doesn’t wear a gold Rolex watch,’ he said.”

Reid’s plunge to success might seem a little goofy, but diving for sunken golf balls has made him wealthy. As the founder-proprietor of Second Chance, a recycling center for wayward balls, Reid, 45, has contracts with 60 Florida golf courses for exclusive rights to retrieve submerged Spaldings, Titleists and other favored brands. Other ball retrieval firms from around the country also ship him their finds for cleanup and restoration. In sending some 3 million preowned balls back to the tee last year, his company did just under $1 million in sales.

While harvesting sponges or pearls might be more glamorous, Reid and his divers can pick up 2,000 balls each in a single five-hour diving session. Back at the company’s Orlando workshop, the day’s haul is then dumped into a vat filled with a secret chemical solution that removes stains and algae. “Everyone wants to know what I use,” says Reid, who won’t tell. “I heard about one guy who thought about a cleaning solution of Clorox mixed with ammonia. If he did that, he would have come up with a poisonous gas, and he’d probably pass out.”

On the average, Reid’s divers are paid 10 cents per ball, but no ball is considered valueless. He’ll even pay about 5 cents for a cut ball—”Cruise ships like them so people can hit them into the ocean,” Reid explains. On the selling end, 60 cents—paid by pro shops and driving ranges—is the top price for first-quality balls that go for nearly $2 apiece brand-new.

For Reid and his scuba squad, the murky little ponds can harbor hazards worse than anything the golfers imagined: alligators. Reid says there’s room enough for both divers and beasts. He just lets the ‘gators know he’s coming. “I like to intimidate them by splashing in the water like I was trying to catch them,” says Reid, who has never been bitten. “They get a fear of you. Then you get in the water and keep coming up every now and then, looking for them.”

Growing up near Kingston, Okla., Reid learned to dive in a 40-foot-deep section of Lake Texoma near a 23-acre resort operated by his father. In 1971, Jim headed for Florida in search of shipwrecks crammed with gold. He never found one, so he took a job as a surveyor with Disney, where he later “rode around on a truck and yelled at the people I was supervising. It was the most stressful job I ever had. When you lay out concrete footers for a monorail, you’d better get it right.” During that time, a friend who was a golf pro asked him to dive into a deep water hazard to see what might be on the bottom. “It was deep, all right, about 40 feet,” says Reid, “but it was crystal clear and I swam down.”

At that moment he discovered a different kind of treasure. “My eyes got as big as saucers,” Reid remembers, smiling. “The bottom was covered with golf balls. White gold.” He persuaded a few pros to let him dive for balls and, working out of his house, Reid says he began cleaning balls in a 20-year-old Maytag washing machine. His moonlighting got in the way of his job at Disney, so he gave notice in 1981, enduring snickers from his ex-colleagues. “They acted as though I was going to collect aluminum cans along the road,” says Reid.

Eight years later, Reid gets more praise than derision. He and second wife Beverly, 40, whom he met in a marine biology class at Sea World, will soon move into an airy, three-bedroom town house with their daughter, Raina, 7. (Reid has two other children from his first marriage: Debbie, 19, who works the night shift at Second Chance, and Jeff, 21, a Marine.) Oh yes, does Jim Reid play golf? “Are you kidding?” he says. “I don’t have time to chase a little white ball around.”