Coastal golf courses are beloved for their beauty. But they also have a hidden cost.

By Marisa Spyker
February 20, 2019
David Cannon/Getty Images

Whether your golf skills are that of a novice or on par with Tiger Woods, there’s one thing most players can agree on: Golf balls have a tendency to disappear. As tiny and nondescript pieces, they’re easy to lose and even simpler to replace.

Up until recently, they were also easy to forget about. But you can thank a California teenager for reminding us all where these small and seemingly insignificant pieces inevitably end up, at least on coastal courses: at the bottom of the ocean.

Sixteen-year-old Alex Weber was diving off the coast of Carmel—home of the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Course—when she first made the disturbing discovery of thousands of golf balls littering the ocean floor. “You couldn’t even see the sand,” Weber told NPR. “It was completely white.”

Weber slowly began hauling them in, first by the hundreds and then the thousands. Her discovery caught the attention of Stanford University scientist Matt Savoca, who studies plastic waste in the sea and began joining Weber to clean up the golf balls. After two years, they’d collected more than 50,000—all while the never-ending tap of golf balls continued to flow. “When we were out there,” Savoca told NPR, “we’d hear ‘plink, plink,’ and we’d look up on the hill and there’d be golf balls flying in off the course right into the ocean where we were doing collections.”

Savoca and Weber, who’ve authored a paper about their findings that was recently published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, say the decomposition patterns of the balls they collected show the real threat they pose to the seas. Golf balls are coated in a polyurethane shell, which releases potentially harmful chemicals into the ocean. They’ll also eventually break down into microplastics that could be eaten by marine animals.

With oceanfront property a popular location for golf courses, Savoca and Weber believe golf ball pollution is an issue that could potentially span worldwide. And seaside courses aren’t solely to blame—Weber and Savoca say the source of their own 50,000 golf balls is five separate courses, three of which are located along Carmel River.

Weber, now 18 and a published author of a scientific paper, says on her website she hopes the findings will help develop and direct mitigation procedures for their region and others with coastal and riverside golf courses. “If a person could see what we see underwater,” Weber told NPR, “it would not be acceptable.”

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