Golf-ball hunter's passion

Roger Letts with his collection of golf balls in his Moorestown front yard. He collects the stray balls from courses in the area and sells them.
Roger Letts with his collection of golf balls in his Moorestown front yard. He collects the stray balls from courses in the area and sells them. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

He uses his daily pickings to supplement his retirement income.

Posted: August 29, 2011

Dressed in camouflage fatigues, Roger Letts crawls around the fringes of golf courses in the early mornings.

Sometimes his prey lurks in the nooks and crannies of woods. Other times it's at the bottom of a murky pond.

Most days, the white-haired ex-biker returns to his ramshackle Moorestown home with bulging jacket and pants pockets. On a good day, he says, he scores 100 to 150 - golf balls.

Letts has been "hunting golf balls" since he was 8 or 10, when he was a caddie at the Pennsauken Golf Course, he said. His "golf nut" father, he said, taught him about the secret burial grounds of balls that had sliced far afield of certain challenging holes.

The youth would sell the lost treasure for pocket cash.

Now 73, Letts uses his pickings to supplement his retirement income. He estimated he gathered 10,000 balls a year.

"Rather than getting bored and sitting around, and doing nothing, I go out to the golf courses in the early morning hours," he said.

Driving down New Albany Road, a well-traveled back road and shortcut, motorists can't help doing a double-take at the sight of Letts' place.

Rows and rows of neatly arranged egg cartons - filled with a variety of used golf balls - blanket his tiny front lawn, which is close to the Jeff Young Memorial sports fields off Lenola Road.

He sells a dozen balls for $5. Five dozen go for $20.

That's far less than the $45 that golf enthusiasts might pay for a dozen Titleist Pro V1 balls, a highly engineered, multilayered type that can cancel spin and soar high and far.

A bunch of these "Cadillac" balls are mixed in with other brands.

Letts said his display attracted golfers and curiosity seekers. Often he hangs out on the porch of his house and just waits. When he's not there, a sign invites shoppers to place the money in his mailbox.

A couple of years ago, he said, he sold $2,000 worth of balls to a man who told him he planned to open a shop to sell used golf items.

Letts' surplus is stashed in a line of aquarium tanks on his porch.

His property also is overrun by a hodgepodge of motorcycles, old cars, wrought-iron chairs, worn wooden tables, fancy hubcaps, used golf clubs, planted plastic flowers, a deer head wearing a shamrock necklace, seashells, 3-D pictures, a rabbit pen, and a small tank that houses three pet rats. Some of the items - not his pets - also are for sale.

"If the American Pickers came here, they would have a field day," Letts said. (The History Channel show features two antiques collectors who travel the country looking for finds among junk in homes and garages.) He trash-picks on the side, he said.

At one time he parked a turquoise 1976 Corvette on his front lawn. He glued golf balls all over it and adorned it with stickers with slogans such as "My Sin."

"It's an explosion of weirdness," said Eugenia Manna Porello, a Moorestown oil painter who stopped to peek at the scene a few weeks ago.

"You see green grass, green grass, and then this. It couldn't be more different," said her husband, Eric Manna.

At first glance, Porello said, she thought Letts was exhibiting painted eggs, and she hoped to get some "artistic inspiration."

The property "looks very abandoned and dirty, but it's interesting," she said. She was not in the market for golf balls or flea-market objects, but she did find the way Letts had placed chairs, tables, and other objects a mixed-media "artistic statement."

Letts, who used to work for printing firms, also collects and restores motorcycles and cars, hunts pheasants, collects guns, goes fishing, cuts down trees, and does taxidermy.

Oh, and he is a Civil War reenactor. He has played soldier at Batsto and Gettysburg battle re-creations.

What he doesn't seem to have time for anymore is golf.

Matthew Deckert, assistant golf pro at the Pennsauken course, said that "we don't have any problem with people getting the balls" in the woods as long as no one is playing at that time. Other people go into the woods late at night to retrieve stray balls, he said.

Amy Kauffman, a friend of Letts' who said she cleaned his house and took care of his rabbits and pet rats, calls him "the Lord of Callaway," referring to the golf-equipment maker. She met him years ago when she and a friend skipped a day of high school and walked by the house.

"He asked if me and my friend would help him set out the golf balls," she said. They obliged.

At the time, Letts was married and had two children. He has since divorced, and his son and daughter have moved to California. He visits them every winter.

But when the weather is nice, Letts said, golf-ball hunting is part of his daily routine. He frequents the Pennsauken course, Willowbrook in Moorestown, Ramblewood in Mount Laurel, and Kresson in Voorhees, he said.

"I used to go skin diving, with a snorkel, to get the balls, but that's dangerous," he said. "You run into a lot of snakes and snapping turtles."

Once, he said, a snapper bit a finger.

After he returned from the Pennsauken golf course last week, he demonstrated how he cleans the balls.

First, he dumps them into a bucket of water and lets them soak a few hours to release the grime. Then he uses a wire brush to make them shine.

"At a young age I learned how to make money doing this," he said. "And this just takes a couple of hours a day."


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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