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Culture

Diving for Dollars

For the qualified and the adventurous, there is money to be made at the bottom of ponds and streams: In Germany, professional golf-ball divers are taking the plunge for those golf balls lost in murky waters.

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Plop!

Earlier this year rescue divers pulled the body of a man out of a murky pond at Lincoln county golf course in the US. The man, who owned a golf-ball retrieval service was said to have been diving for golf-balls in a large pond at the 15th hole at the county golf club.

Golf-ball diving is both a dangerous sport and a big business – not just in the US. “Bal Vast Golfball recycling”, Germany’s only professional golf-ball divers are proving surpisingly successful with their golf-ball retrieval company based in the North German city of Osnabrück.

Groping in the mud

Erik Wissnik collects golf balls, but not in the traditional way. Wissnik and his team at “Bal Vast Golfball recycling” are experts in retrieving golf balls – of which there are thousands lost on muddy driving ranges. On golf courses across Germany, golfers inadvertently hit their balls into ponds and small rivers. Wissnik and his colleagues then plunge down through the muck to find their quarry – sometimes up to 6 metres under the surface.

Complete with wet suit, scuba gear and collecting bags, Wissnik takes the plunge into Hamburg’s muddy waters on the search for lost golf balls. During the winter, he can hardly see for muck and silt. After an hour of groping around in the dark in ice-cold water, Wissnik returns to the surface, more than 500 golf balls juggling in his collecting bag.

Wissnik and his family have been collecting golf balls for over a year – with success. Golfers pay around 2,5 Euros for a new golf ball - the ball-retrievers at “Bal Vast Golfball Reclycling” sell them back to the golf players for half the original price.

Golf balls are coated in plastic and do not tend to rot. With the possiblity of a ball being lost and found more than once, golf-ball retrieving is a successful formula for North Germany’s plastic pearl divers.

Rollerskating on golfballs

43-year-old Ekkehard Gram checks the booty regularly at the company’s head office in Osnabrück. Gram was the first German to discover the advantages of golf-ball diving a year ago. “In America and England this has been big business for years”, he says. “There are a few amateur divers in Germany as well, but the way we do it, going from fishing out of the pond to the finished market product is certainly new”. Gram expects an annual production of 4 million balls by 2003.

The business of how a golf ball is reincarnated from life at the muddy bottom of a lake back to a gleaming, white object is as murky as the ponds that some divers plunge into. There are no numbers on how many golf ball divers work in the U.S., on how many balls they retrieve annually or on or how many firms recondition balls. The only evidence in the tight-lipped industry is fairytale-like, using words such as "expanding" and "large." One diver in Las Vegas is said to have found 15, 000 balls in one day, comparing his job at the bottom of the pond to “rollerskating on golfballs”.

And the job is dangerous. Golf-ball divers in the US take the plunge in water hazards and ponds contaminated with sewage. However, despite the danger, the job is more than a lucrative way to earn money. For golf-ball divers, it is the thrill and the danger of diving - in the cold, the dark and the mud.