Golfball diver able to retrieve his freedom

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

LONDON -- A man who made a living by illegally retrieving balls from golf-course lakes won his fight to overturn a six-month prison sentence Monday but was told to stop clandestine diving expeditions.

John Collinson was caught in August wearing a rubber diving suit at Whetstone Golf Course in the central England city of Leicester. He and colleague Terry Rostron had fished 1,158 balls from Lily Pond -- the bane of hundreds of golfers playing the difficult par-3 fifth hole.

The severity of the sentence against Collinson provoked a public outcry, made the 36-year-old father of two a celebrity, and prompted campaigns for his release. He was freed on bail May 3.

At London's Court of Appeal on Monday, two judges lifted the jail term and gave him a two-year conditional discharge, which means he must stay out of trouble for that period.

The judges agreed with Collinson's lawyer that the sentence was "disproportionate" to the offense.

But Lord Justice Mark Potter warned that the court did not regard the offenses as "trivial."

He said the decision to impose a conditional discharge was not a "let-off" and should be seen as a deterrent to further "clandestine" dives.

Collinson was present as the two justices announced their decision. He left court with representatives of a national newspaper and declined to comment to other reporters, indicating he may be paid for his exclusive story.

For 10 years Collinson made a modest living diving for lost golf balls and selling them for 20 cents each. He made roughly $21,450 a year collecting balls at courses.

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