University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Taking a swing at the golf balls problem

Golf balls are lost all the time, as golfers practise from rooftops, parking lots and any level stretch of grass they can find. Copenhagen scientist is looking at the environmental problem

As many as 300 million golf balls are lost every year in the United States alone, according to the New York Times’ golf blog On Par. And last year 100,000 golf balls were discovered in a sonar search for the Loch Ness Monster.

Golfers are practising their swing from rooftops, parking lots and apparently Scotland’s favourite driving range – the area surrounding the Loch Ness. Balls are disappearing everywhere.

Business and pleasure

For some, this is an opportunity to make money.

Already two sizable books have been published on the matter, and entrepreneurs are making a fortune finding and reselling wayward balls – a business estimated to be worth up to USD 200 million.

But lucrative trade aside, are golf balls posing a threat to the environment? It’s not yet known how long it takes a golf ball to decompose in nature. It could be anywhere from 50 to 500 years. And the levels of zinc and other heavy metals in golf balls could prove harmful to vegetation in ponds and waterways.

Lost and found

Dr. Anne Mette Dahl Jensen, senior advisor at Forest and Landscape at the University of Copenhagen and her husband – both avid golfers – are planning to conduct field tests, researching the degradation of golf balls in the many different environments golf is played in.

»There’s currently a debate on whether or not the golf balls pose a problem to the environment, but so far it is all speculation,« says Dr. Anne Mette Dahl Jensen to the University Post, »the debate isn’t based on anything academic, and the tests conducted have not been thorough enough to be conclusive.«

Taking a stroll across a golf course, Jensen has at times found cracked golf balls. A mould can be taken of these, to see how deep into the ball the cracks go. Cracks do not pose a potential problem unless they reach the zinc core.

Secretive developers

But there are plenty of factors that need exploring. There are the environmental factors: what are the effects of salt water as opposed to fresh water on a golf ball? And it isn’t even clear what level of zinc each ball contains.

»Balls can be specifically designed for putts or long distance shots and everything in between, and developers are quite secretive about their zinc content,« Dr. Anne Mette Dahl Jensen explains, »All of their work is patented, and companies are in direct competition to build the better balls.«

Lost and found

The image of golf isn’t likely to be sullied from this though, as Dahl Jensen explains:

»Developers are always looking to make better golf balls, and the current debate about the potential risks of golf balls containing zinc will probably only speed up the process of developing something new.«

Cruise ship operators have conscientiously made sure to provide organic, water-soluble golf balls so their guests can practice their swings on deck, and although they’ve yet to catch on elsewhere, it’s a step in the right direction.

In the meantime – with sales in excess of 20 million reclaimed balls for just one of the companies – the business of finding and reselling golf balls is helping golf balls spend less and less time lost in nature.

Do you have a good story? We would like to hear from you. In the meantime, like us on Facebook for features, guides and tips on upcoming events and follow us on Twitter for links to other Copenhagen academia news stories.