Where do all these golf balls come from?

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PEBBLE BEACH – At Pebble Beach Golf Links, even the most talented golfers hit the ball in the ocean.

"But few golf balls are hit directly in the water," says Mark Stilwell, vice president of Pebble Beach Company. "There are beach areas and coastal cliffs where bullets are often hit." And waves, rush and gravity carry these wandering golf balls into the ocean.

Between 2016 and 2018, Alexandra Weber, a freediver and student at Cabrillo College, and her friends removed nearly 30,000 golf balls from the Stillwater Cove area. "Golf balls have never been studied or even recognized as being in the ocean before," said Weber, who attended Carmel High School. "It was heartbreaking when I met them for the first time," she says, "because the environment we have here in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is so precious and preserved."

She estimates that 1 to 5 million golf balls have been lost to the environment since 1919, when Pebble Beach Golf Links was commissioned. His recent research published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin highlights that these underwater golf balls are used, contribute to the formation of microplastics and release chemical pollutants into the ocean. These pollutants can be absorbed by marine life and eventually reach us.

Recognizing the seriousness of the problem, Pebble Beach Co. has engaged for five years to undertake a series of organized cleanings of golf balls. They will sponsor nearly 200 annual dives in 11 intertidal and subtidal sites around Pebble Beach, where golf balls are known to have accumulated.
Some of the Pebble Beach Golf Links fairways extend along the coast. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

The destiny of golf balls under the water

Under water, golf balls are barely negatively buoyant. They sink to the bottom of the ocean and move, even under the lightest currents of waves.

But the strength and direction of these currents dictate the aggregation of golf balls. At these aggregation hotspots, golf balls have a tumbling experience. "Golf balls are thrown into the rocks and thrown around the bottom of the sea," said Weber. "It's just in the surf zone where the water is constantly beating."

It is not surprising that these golf balls wear out over time. Over the past two years, Weber has been collecting golf balls that are in varying stages of degradation. Some had lost their glossy polyurethane coating, giving these padded balls their shiny appearance. Others had lost their white paint and seemed chalky. Some even lost their characteristic dimples and had smooth surfaces.

In this process of degradation, the toxic chemicals in the paint and shiny coating penetrate into the water. At the same time, tiny corroding plastic particles are also released into the ocean. These are absorbed into the tissues of fish and other marine species and enter the food chain. "It ends up happening," said Weber, which is scary.

She has also discovered golf balls that can be over 15 years old. She is certain that these balls with broken outer shells revealed a stretched rubber wire of 275 meters wrapped around a rubber core. These golf balls were popular in the last century, but had begun to disappear in the late 1990s.

These yarns are floating, float on the surface of the ocean and entangle in kelp. "It gives the different marine species the ability to ingest much more easily," said Webber.
The different levels of degradation of golf balls. (Alexandra Weber)

Armed with National Sanctuary Tips, Pebble Beach Co. steps in

As part of each collecting dive, Weber and his friends accumulated 500 to 5,000 golf balls in a daily account.

"The number of golf balls that kids were picking up regularly brings the issue to our attention," said Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Between 2016 and 2017, the Navy National Sanctuary conducted investigations near Pebble Beach to confirm the extent of the golf balls dropped under the water. "We have seen several hundred or even thousands, but that's only the tip of the iceberg," Michel said.

Through these investigations, his team identified 11 golf ball concentration sites in the intertidal and subtidal regions. These sensitive areas, located near the 18th, 17th, 8th and 6th holes of Pebble Beach Golf Links, are small and should be subject to future cleanup efforts, according to Michel.

Over the last two years, Pebble Beach Co. has been cleaning the shoreline weekly. But these remove very few golf balls compared to their number under the water. Now this is about to change.

They have committed to sponsor 198 annual dives over the next five years to collect golf balls from the 11 sites. These dives will add to ongoing beach cleanups and will cost between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000 at Pebble Beach Co. over the five year period. "Caring for unintentional golf balls that are making their way into the ocean is part of our environmental ethic," says Stilwell. "We want to do the right thing."

The company's goal is to remove golf balls accumulated over the years and continue to collect new additions. They hope to ultimately reduce the number of balls entering the ocean by educating golfers.

"Hitting a bad shot is part of the nature of the game, but no one should feel comfortable to intentionally hit a golf ball in the ocean," Stilwell said. "We remind people in a firm but polite manner that they must be respectful."

The fate of recovered golf balls

Weber is looking forward to seeing a more organized effort to tackle the problem of golf balls. "I think it's our first big step forward to make a difference," she says. "I think this can be considered a model to replicate for other golf courses."

But what happens to golf balls once they have been recovered from the ocean? Some people reuse or resell those who have not suffered much from the deterioration. But Weber collaborates with a local artist, Ethan Estess, to use the golf balls that she has collected and turns them into an interactive art sculpture.

Some 20,000 golf balls will be used to create a wave of cannon. "People can literally climb into the surf, get on the surfboard and feel what it's like to be immersed in a wave of trash," said Weber. "It's a kind of demonstration of the need to prevent plastics from entering our oceans before they become a wave of waste."

They plan to mount this evocative artwork on a flatbed trailer and carry it around the country. Their goal is to educate people who may not be aware of marine pollution issues.