Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square hosts thousands of golfers who hit thousands of balls into water hazards each year. This week, four people from Michigan decided to retrieve some of those strays - by diving into the ponds.

According to Willistown police, the four were arrested at the club early Wednesday. In their white van and trailer, police found scuba equipment and about 8,000 golf balls, some marked "White Manor Country Club."

Police said the four claimed they had permission from White Manor to retrieve the balls from the murky water hazards and resell them.

Authorities said the four were poaching from White Manor and Aronimink.

The four - Daniel P. Curry, 31; Charles D. Creed IV, 26; Robert D. Suave III, 28; and Carisa N. Osmond, 23, all from Saginaw, Mich. - were arraigned before Chester County District Judge Chester Darlington on charges of theft, receiving stolen property, and defiant trespass. Each was released on 10 percent of $5,000 bail. Their preliminary hearing was set for May 2.

Curry told the Malvern Patch website he had contracts with other golf courses in the area and had been told by a business associate he could collect balls from the two clubs. He said he owns a ball-retrieval business called Plus 1.

Dick Naumann, general manager of Aronimink, said the club does not bother to retrieve balls, leaving them for neighborhood children to fish out of the two ponds, which are no more than six feet deep.

The four were caught when police saw flashlights on the course in the middle of the night "and came across these jokers," Naumann said.

"I'm sure it's not the first time that somebody has come and pulled golf balls out of our pond, but it's the first time that I know that the police saw them doing it and put handcuffs on them," he said.

John Clay, White Manor's general manager, downplayed the incident. "Some folks trespassed and took balls out of a pond. They had our logos on them and they admitted to stealing them," he said.

But local golfers said they had never heard of poaching on such a large scale before.

"I've heard of people stealing balls from courses before, but that's a lot," said Chris Roselle, tournament director of the Golf Association of Philadelphia, of which White Manor and Aronimink are members. Aronimink, then called the Belmont Golf Association, was a founding member of the group in 1897.

According to an article in Scuba Diving magazine on the murky world of golf ball divers, retrieval companies sign contracts with courses in which they pay 8 to 10 cents per ball or give them a percentage of the balls to use on driving ranges or to resell in pro shops.

The companies then sell recycled balls for a third to half their original price. Top-of-the-line Titleist Pro V1 balls go for about $50 a dozen new.

According to Golf Digest, divers scoop up about 100 million balls each year, and retrieving and recycling them has become a big business.

Some divers can retrieve thousands of balls a day.

Ryan Hilliard, a diver from Lexington, Ky., who started salvaging golf balls after seeing a story about the practice on ESPN, said mud-bottom ponds "are nasty and wild, and you're not going to see five inches in front of your face."

He has done just a few dives, but he takes two friends with him to "make sure I don't get eaten up by a snapping turtle," he said.

As bad as that is, at least it's not Florida.

"There are no gators in Kentucky," he said.

Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.