Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

Two Brunswick County men have raised more than $40,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project by selling stray golf balls.

Bob Duke has found a way to take the pain out of hitting a golf ball into the woods. He thinks of it not as a lost ball, but as a potential donation to his favorite charity, the Wounded Warrior Project.

Of course, he still has to take a stroke, but he doesn’t mind quite as much as long as someone finds his ball and gives it back to him. Duke collects lost balls, cleans them, separates them by brand and type, packages them in egg cartons, and gives them away as a thank you gift to anyone who will donate money to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Bob wants all the lost golf balls he can get. He hunts for them on his home course, Carolina National in Winding River. He jokingly says, “You can find 200 balls in an hour if you are willing to put on fatigues and combat boots and put up with the chigger bites.”

He also has a list of nearly 200 friends and neighbors who regularly give him the balls they find. And then there is the greens keeper at Magnolia Greens and the guy at Winding River who works on the sprinkling system, each of whom has donated thousands. A man from Ohio who was here on a golf vacation sent Duke eight dozen balls when he got back home. Bridgestone donated 37 boxes of new E-7 balls. And occasionally someone who finds a “two for the price of one” sale gives the second box to Bob. Eggland’s Best donates the egg cartons. Once a year they send 1,800 empty cartons to Sam’s Club in Wilmington, where Duke meets their truck at 5 a.m.

Duke started this project on December 10, 2011, in answer to his wife’s demand that he get rid of the 6,000 found golf balls he had accumulated and stored in the attic. He hatched a plan and he set goals. The first year’s goal was to raise $10,000. By December 10, 2012, he had raised $13,115. The mid-range goal was $36,000 to commemorate his 36 years in the military.

In May of 2012, Duke’s buddy from St. James, Jim Riviello, teamed up with him. Riviello collects balls from the four St. James courses with help from his friends and neighbors. Periodically he takes his collection of donated balls to Duke’s man cave to be cleaned, sorted and packaged and then brings them back to give as gifts to Wounded Warrior Project donors in St. James. To date, the two of them have received more than $40,000 in donations for the Wounded Warrior Project.

They have given away too many thousands of cartons or single balls to count.

“We don’t count the number of balls we give away, but we do keep very good records on the money we receive,” says Duke.

Every donation is first recorded by hand in a notebook and then documented in an Excel spreadsheet on Duke’s computer. He copies every check before he sends them to the Wounded Warrior Project headquarters in Topeka, Kansas. Wounded Warrior Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so the full amount of the donation is tax deductible, and the donor receives a letter acknowledging their contribution.

The cleaning, sorting, packaging and labeling operation takes place in Duke’s man cave. Since the ladder to get up there is a bit challenging and would be difficult to maneuver with anything in your hands, Duke has constructed a pulley system to hoist up the dirty balls in a large box and then return the clean ones, packaged and labeled by brand and model, and ready to be given away.

The cleaning process starts with washing the balls by putting them in a plastic container with holes at the bottom and lowering them into a 5-gallon bucket filled with a solution of bleach, powdered soap and water. Cleaning can take anywhere from a half-hour to overnight, depending upon the condition of the balls. Next they are transferred to the inspection station, where each ball is inspected individually and any remaining spots are removed with grease cleaner. If the degreaser doesn’t get the spot off, or if there is even the slightest indication of a crack, the ball is rejected.

Current inventory is estimated to be 1,600 dozen balls and includes Bridgestone E5, E6, E7 and 330; Callaway Diablo, Diablo/HX Tour, orange, blue and red; Srixon; Taylor Made and Taylor Made Burner; Titleist NXT, NXT Extreme, DT Solo, DT Distance; and Pro V-1. The suggested donation is $10 per carton of premium balls and $5 for non-premium balls, which include Nike, Noodle, Pinnacle Gold, Precept, Slazenger, Top Flite XL, XL 3000 Double Dimple, Tour and XL Distance, and Wilson Pro Staff. The inventory of ladies’ balls is considerably smaller. Duke and his wife say this is because women lose fewer balls. Riviello says it is because “guys who find ladies’ balls (especially any brand of crystals) give them to their wife or girlfriend or both.”

A few years ago, Margaret Clark from Carolina Shores read a story in the Star-News about Duke and Riviello and their golf ball giveaway program, and she contacted Duke about helping. Clark’s husband, Don, was a military man and had a hobby of collecting souvenir logo balls. Don had recently passed away, and Clark thought donating his collection to Duke’s project would be a fitting tribute to him. So she donated them — all 8,139 logo balls, duly recorded by type and date, and all of them dirty.

“It took me four months to clean them all,” Duke says. He still has some to give away. There are ones with logos from colleges all over the country, professional football teams, various golf courses and every branch of the military service. Some are mounted on personalized plaques; others are given away individually.

The program has been successful not only because people need golf balls, but also because they want to help the cause.

“Everybody is different,” says Duke. “For some people it’s all about the balls, but for most it’s about supporting the Wounded Warrior Project. Most people donate more than we ask for, and some just give us a donation without even taking any balls.”

For Duke, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, this project is personal. He spent 36 years as a career military man and reveres those who serve today, especially those who have been injured in active combat.

He says the Wounded Warrior Project supports these men and women and their families for a lifetime because it is what is needed and it is what we owe them. Wounded Warrior Project develops an individualized program for each severely wounded veteran, providing life-skills training, home healthcare and help for the caregiver, transportation and, perhaps most important of all, emotional support and encouragement to face their new challenges. For many of the wounded, it starts in the trauma unit of the hospital where they are visited by a Wounded Warrior Project member and given a care package.

Duke says he doesn’t know how much time he spends working on the golf ball project.

“I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I only wash a few golf balls; these guys risked their lives.”

How Can You Help?

If you would like to contribute to the Wounded Warrior Project, you can donate your found golf balls or select the renewed golf balls of your choice from Bob Duke at 1629 Silverwood Court, Winding River in Bolivia. Since Duke is usually either playing golf or looking for more lost balls, you will probably want to get in touch with him first. His number is (910) 754-9597 or email him at . Or you might catch him with a good supply on the cart path on hole #2 of the Carolina National Ibis course. To reach Jim Riviello in St. James you can call (910) 854-0013 or email him at . Checks should be made out to “Wounded Warrior Project,” and mailed to Duke at the above address.

If you are intrigued by this program and want to help in an even bigger way, you might consider setting up a satellite program at your club, golf course or hometown. Duke says he would be glad to train anyone who is interested and walk them through it. His dream is to have this program duplicated all around the country to provide support for our brave military men and women who fought for us and now need us to fight for them.