I keep telling myself that I’m safe—safe as being in God’s pocket, as my grandma would say.
My spine stiffens. What the ... ?
Next to me behind a steering wheel, a thin, bearded fellow gives a half-grin.
“What’d I tell you?” he says. “When you get in one of these things, you automatically have a target on your back.”
The cage’s driver, Jim Dunn, is a picker.
Safe as I feel, it still seems we’re under attack.
“That one got the wheel,” Dunn says. “No real damage. Just wait.”
You’ll see these cages wherever there is a driving range. Indeed, all across Albuquerque, folks are teeing up golf balls and then sending them into the wild blurred yonder. Eventually a picker will chug by to vacuum the results.
But not before taking a shelling.
Pock! Pock! Pock!
Dunn never hears “Fore!” He ought to hear “Incoming!”
“I always get startled,” he says. “I know it’s going to happen, but still it’s a shock to my system that leaves me shaken.”
“When they crash into the screen, I jump.”
Dunn says he thinks that about 80 percent of the people who tee it up at a driving range are, for laughs, zeroing in on the picker. Thus, the picking cage is the dunking booth of a golf course. You get hit, you get soaked. Either way, no blasting back. Carl Spacklers need not apply.
Dan Wichers, an Albuquerque maintenance technician who is happily going through a bucket of golf balls this morning says, “It’s fun to go after him. It’s a challenge ’cause he’s moving. What’s most fun is using a driver and lighting up the guy when he’s way out there. That really rattles his cage.”
If you don’t believe such mischief occurs, take a glimpse at YouTube video “4 Year Old Golfer Hits Driving Range Cart/Picker Four Consecutive Times.” A talented boy has accompanied his father to an indoor driving range, name and place not provided. The purpose of the trip is apparently for the father to encourage the kid to plunk the picker.
Second tee shot: “You got him again,” dad says proudly. “Wow! 20 points.”
Third tee shot. “A beauty,” dad marvels, “right on the windshield.”
Fourth tee shot: “On the roof! That was awesome.”
Some viewers think the kid is a prodigy, a Tiger Woods in the making. Other comments vent about the point of such an outing.
“Only a douche bag aims at the ball-picker.”
“That’s some class A parenting, teaching your kid to be an a--hole to hit the ball-collecting guy.”
“It’s only a matter of time before the ball-picker equips his cart with a cannon and shoots back at this kid.”
Jim Dunn is too busy to personally respond to blows raining down. His cage has a large reel in the front with teeth. The teeth flip up the balls into one of six baskets. Dunn fetches hundreds and hundreds of golf balls, all day long.
Got us again.
Right about now you are probably wondering why pickers don’t work when the driving range is empty. The answer is because someone is almost always on the range, and the need for range balls is insatiable. The only time Dunn is not retrieving is when someone is cutting the grass.
“When I’m at 100 yards, I know they’re going for me,” Dunn says. “I just know it. When golfers hit you, they think it’s a major feat. Especially when they really nail you.”
Back in the day, pickers drove makeshift tractors with metal cages. You could lose your hearing inside one of those. Moreover, the tractors were really slow-turning. All in all, a thankless job.
The E-Z-GO cage that Dunn drives cost 10 grand. Wide open, it can do about 10 mph.
Pickers are made, not born. Dunn, 58, worked for the City of Albuquerque in the sports office and then in senior affairs for 25 years.
“When I retired, I stayed home and dusted and cleaned while my wife worked. That got old after a while. I had to get out and do something.”
Though he is not a golfer, he asked around at the Championship Course. He now works about 30 hours a week there.
A military service specialty may have unknowingly prepared Dunn for the action on the driving range. As a Navy quartermaster during the end of the Vietnam War, Dunn served on the bridge of an old destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. He steered the big ship to de-mine harbors while at the same time avoiding enemy fire.
George Trujeque, who runs the show at the Championship Golf Course, says the best pickers are methodical.
“You don’t want to swerve all around while driving. You want to get an efficient pick. Think of mowing a lawn.”
Trujeque says that Dunn, who he sometimes calls Slim Pickins, is the right man for the job. “Jim doesn’t get down. It’s not easy. Getting hit in the cage is almost like getting hit in the head with a rock. Same velocity.”
It helps to have a sense of humor and Dunn has that, according to Trujeque. “Jim can take a joke. I’m always telling him I’m going to punish him by putting him in a cageless picker and make him wear a football helmet.”
Golf courses can be dangerous places. Errant Titleists or Top Flites severely injure or kill people every year. You don’t even have to be on a course to be hit. A man was walking his Chihuahua in the Bosque one evening last month when a flying golf ball accidentally fell from the sky and clunked poor little Chico on the head, killing him.
Dunn has seen gimpy roadrunners. Now and then a dead jackrabbit turns up, its skull fractured.
What then is the upside to this line of work? For one, picking is not an unsung job. In fact, the picker is immortalized in one of Bud Light’s Real American Heroes commercials.
“Today, we salute you, Mister Driving Range Ball Picker Upper. You bravely throw yourself directly in the path of adversity. Oh, the rules call for friendly fire, but you know we’re all gunning for you. ‘Let her rip,’ you say. And when they do, you’ll be there. So crack open an ice cold Bud Light, range guy, because in this world of namby pambys, you’re the one with all the balls.”