The Burden and Boon of Lost Golf Balls
By BILL PENNINGTON
Loch Ness in Scotland invites monster hunters and golfers who use its 21 square miles as an oversize driving range.In a sonar search last year for the Loch Ness monster, scientists with a submersible device instead discovered more than 100,000 golf balls.
Who knew the Loch Ness monster even played golf?
In a logical conclusion, Scottish officials surmised that golfers along Loch Ness had been using its 21 square miles as an oversize driving range. As a local lawmaker said, “Golf balls are humanity’s litter in the most inaccessible locations.”
No one knows for sure how many golf balls are lost each year worldwide, though the total in the United States is estimated at 300 million. Hundreds of thousands of golf balls are lost or abandoned every day in lakes, ponds, forests, wetlands, deserts, backyards, gardens, parking lots, cemeteries, on rooftops and at the bottom of woodchuck holes.
But in the last few years, the simple, seemingly inconsequential lost golf ball has stumbled upon a new international renown and import. Culturally, the lost golf ball has become conspicuous evidence of golf’s negative ecological impact just as the game yearns to be viewed as more green. In a tough economic climate, the retrieval and discount repackaging of lost golf balls has mushroomed into a lucrative business expanding into global emerging markets. The arts have discovered the lost golf ball, too. Examining the fate and destiny of the wayward golf shot has been the subject of not one but two glossy coffee-table books.
The lost golf ball, in its own way, has become a fatalistic metaphor not just for golf, but perhaps life: we are all lost, waiting to be found.
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.“For every lost ball, there was a forlorn search, perfunctory or thorough,” John Updike wrote in the foreword to “Lost Balls,” a 2005 golf book. “These questing ghosts haunt the course, hovering at the juncture of their interrupted game. ‘Found it!’ one wants to cry out in triumph, though the loser has been decades in his grave.”
There has been no recognized study of what has happened or will happen to the millions, if not billions, of lost golf balls dotting the earth in little white, orange and pink orbs. There is no accepted wisdom on how long it takes a golf ball to decompose in soil or waterways, according to interviews with more than a dozen golf industry and environmental researchers. The informed guess is that most balls begin to break down somewhere between 50 and 500 years. Whether the great multitude of lost golf balls rotting under logs or slowly dissolving at the bottom of swampy estuaries pose an environment hazard is also apparently undetermined. But the mere presence of so many abandoned golf balls has made many uncomfortable and has caused others to hypothesize about possible effects.
Torben Kastrup Petersen, the head of course management at the Danish Golf Union, was widely quoted after the Loch Ness discovery expressing some concern about zinc and other heavy metals in golf balls that might escape into waterways. Such contamination in other settings has proved to be harmful to vegetation at the bottom of lakes and ponds. Petersen helped conduct lab experiments to measure what golf ball materials leached into water, and found minor amounts of zinc, among other things. He conceded that his test had limitations because it could not replicate the volume of water in a typical pond or lake.
Hundreds of thousands of golf balls are lost or abandoned every day. Finding and reselling them, by some estimates, is a $200-million-a-year industry.But Dr. Anne Mette Dahl Jensen, a senior adviser on forest and landscape at the University of Copenhagen, noted that while the concentrations of zinc leaving the golf ball in Petersen’s experiment may have been small, those results justified additional testing. Jensen, who plays golf regularly, plans to seek money for field tests on the degradation of golf balls at a wide range of temperatures, soil and water conditions to simulate the vastly different natural environments where golf is played.
“We must be careful not to create a problem before it is properly investigated,” Jensen wrote in an e-mail message last week. “Maybe this is a potential problem and the sport cannot live with the speculation. However, we have to remember that we are not observing any dead fish in our lakes on golf courses — at least not in Denmark.”
Robert Weiss, a professor of polymer engineering at the University of Akron, which has conducted extensive research of multipart products like golf balls, stressed that the zinc in a golf ball is present as an ion strongly bound to the compound and would not be displaced by water. Weiss conceded that an acid could displace the zinc in the ball but doubted that any waterway is acidic enough to do so.
Weiss did not want to dismiss environmental concerns, but he made what he called worst-case scenario calculations involving a million golf balls in Loch Ness that lost all of their zinc. He estimated that dumping five bottles (10 pounds) of antiseptic mouthwash would deposit more zinc ions into Loch Ness than a million golf balls.
Biodegradable, water-soluble golf balls are available, though they are primarily one-use balls bought by cruise ship operators so that guests can practice their swings next to the Lido Deck. There are golf balls that are 100 percent recyclable and made from renewable materials, but they have not penetrated the mainstream market. You won’t find them at a neighborhood Target or the local pro shop.
If the lost-golf-ball-retrieval entrepreneurs have their way — and they are hard at work wherever North American golfers are spraying their shots hither and yon — no lost golf ball will remain in water for long. They reclaim millions of golf balls every week. It is a vast industry that ranges from teenagers, who wade into ponds after school to find and resell balls at 50 cents apiece, to someone like Gary Shienfield, whose Toronto-area company will sell more than 20 million reclaimed golf balls this year. Sales at Shienfield’s Knetgolf.com jumped 25 percent last year.
“In the recession, people are still playing golf, but they’re not so quick to pay $40 for a dozen new, high-end golf balls,” said Shienfield, who has partnerships with 2,200 golf courses to recover lost balls. “Instead, they come to us on the Internet for that ball at $20 a dozen. They are preowned golf balls. They probably bought a preowned BMW, too.”
Also driving Shienfield’s profits are sales to India, Vietnam and much of Southeast Asia.
“Those countries are really taking to golf and they want value, but they also want brand names,” Shienfield said. “We ship them anywhere and get plenty more ready. We don’t sell balls, we rent them and they come back.”
Charles Lindsay wrote “Lost Balls,” and his second volume more or less on the same subject is “Bad Lies,” which goes on sale May 15.
“Golf is a shared experience and so is losing a ball,” Lindsay said last week. “One of the great universal things about the game is that even the world’s best players lose golf balls.
“Every lost golf ball was once a shot of hope and aspiration that then became a plop in the water.”
Lindsay, who has become something of an expert in lost golf balls, said he laughed when he read the reports of 100,000 golf balls in Loch Ness. Having wandered upon hundreds of golf balls in difficult to reach places around the world, he did not seem surprised, or worried.
“I doubt they would have bothered the Loch Ness monster,” he said. “What would you expect? It’s Scotland.”