Environmental hazard: Is hitting golf balls into nature out of bounds?

Recent backlash is shaming golfers into ending this novelty.

If you're a golfer, you've probably done it.

At one point or another, we've all taken aim at Mother Nature - off a cliff or mountain into a lake, an ocean, a canyon, whatever - and unleashed a bomb's away tee shot that would likely be forever lost.

I'm guilty, too. Probably more than once, but no place more spectacular than the 16th tee at Cape Kidnappers, the legendary cliffside course in New Zealand. The 15th hole, called Pirate's Plank, finishes at a green perched on one of the fingers of land made immortal in those aerial photographs.

Tom Doak used fingers of land to create Cape Kidnappers on New Zealand's North Island.

The drop from the 16th tee to the ocean must be more than 400 feet. As soon as my threesome saw it, we couldn't wait to tee it up a shag ball and give it a ride. The challenge wasn't how far could you hit it, but how long could you track the shot? The goal was to figure out how long the ball stayed airborne before sinking into the surf. The ball would seemingly disappear midair within seconds. It was great fun when I did it, but now the memory brings up a twinge of guilt. I'm sure if I had done it recently, there would be video evidence on social media. All I have from 2013 is this innocent grip-and-grin photo.

This photo brings back great memories of Cape Kidnappers ... except that I hit a golf ball into the ocean on purpose from this tee.

What once was considered old fashioned fun and a good Seinfield joke is now considered a blatant environmental hazard and social taboo. There's been a recent backlash of publicity against hitting golf balls off the course into nature. Just last week, two different instances got some golfers and a famous course in hot water.

According to a TV station in Montana, several men were caught on video driving balls off of a roadside cliff into Glacier National Park. Park officials released a statement saying the incident was under investigation.

“Just like other reported possible violations of law, this incident is under investigation. It’s important to realize that throwing or hurling things over the Going-to-the-Sun Road has the potential of hurting or killing wildlife or people down below. You would never throw a bag of garbage over the side, and the same goes for other things that are human made."

One of the bucket-list courses in the Midwest, Michigan's Arcadia Bluffs, was the subject of a July 22 investigative report by the Detroit Free Press that revealed the resort website had encouraged golfers to drive balls from the 12th tee into Lake Michigan. Arcadia Bluffs has since posted this response on Instagram.

View this post on Instagram

Many of you have read the media about golf balls being hit into Lake Michigan, an issue that has plagued lake and oceanside golf courses around the world for decades. In the past a sign posted at the 12th tee discouraged guests from this practice, however, we discovered this sign actually had the opposite effect as players actually hit more balls into the lake. The vast majority of our guests do not hit golf balls into Lake Michigan. By not drawing attention to the issue, we believe that the incidents of hitting balls into the lake have decreased. We take our environmental responsibilities seriously. As such we constantly use the highest industry environmental standards for chemical applications and make sure that no paper or plastic from our guests is left on the golf course. We have regularly scheduled divers to retrieve balls from Lake Michigan, and plan to increase the frequency. We also routinely canvass the beach and keep it clean of debris from other users of Lake Michigan as well as golf balls that are found on the beach. The sign on the 12th hole has been placed there again in reference to hitting balls into the water. The description of the 12th hole on the website has been updated eliminating the reference to hitting balls into the water. Thank you to everyone that has reached out to us today and shown concern about this issue. We appreciate you and the wonderful shores of Michigan!

A post shared by Arcadia Bluffs (@arcadia_bluffs) on

Virtually any golf course that has a glorious tee overlooking an expanse of nature or body of water has likely dealt with this issue. Off of California's coast, a teenage diver and her dad have rescued more than 50,000 golf balls from coves and inlets surrounding Pebble Beach Golf Links since 2016 - most hit into the ocean on accident, but after a 100 years of business, probably a few on purpose, too.

I've had friends regale stories of some of their favorite summer days hitting golf balls off a dock at a target in a lake - maybe a rock or sand bar or a boat in the distance. Sometimes, they'd try to retrieve the balls. Most of the time, they wouldn't. It didn't matter, they thought. Golf balls are almost indestructible. What's the harm in 50 of them in a giant lake?

Now the world knows better. Plastic is overrunning our oceans and water sources. Our food chain and animals of all sizes - whales, birds, turtles, seals - are gobbling up and dying from bits of plastic they ingest.

During that same trip to New Zealand, I also took a helicopter to the top of a mountain on the South Island near Queenstown to hit golf balls into nature. The difference was these balls were biodegradable, made of a dog-biscuit-like core that would simply melt away after a couple rain storms. The company website now touts playing to an artificial green as a par-3 hole in the mountains.

Hitting golf balls off a mountain in New Zealand with Over The Top.

Maybe there's a business opportunity that golfers and environmentalists can agree upon. If golfers aren't sensible enough to stop hitting balls into the ocean or Great Lakes, maybe someone can set up shop on these famous tees, selling biodegradable balls for charity to raise money to clean up our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. For the record, Dixon Earth Balls are 100 percent recyclable but not biodegradable (as noted in the comments below).

Then golfers could swing away as often as they wanted, laughing and giggling at a splash landing of biodegradable balls for a good cause. That's a drive I could get behind.

Have you ever teed off into nature? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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albusgolf.com in Barcelona has been making them since 2010, with an agent in Florida. Theirs has fish food in its core.

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Hi Jason, and everyone reading this comment.

I see that you ended your article with a call to action for businesses to step up so that golfers stop polluting into the ocean and great lakes. My name is Mackenzie, I'm from biodegradablegolfballs.com, and I agree with you 100%.

We're a Canadian start up and we have actually created a fully biodegradable golf ball to tackle this problem - it's 100% water-soluble and made from non-toxic materials, so we can provide that guilt-free golf experience you were asking for. A link in your article would be greatly appreciated, and drive your point home because golfers would be aware of an alternative!

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This is amazing ! I hope you get a sales rep to sell to Ontario corses ! Lake Huron has so many courses bordering its concerning!

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How about stopping professionals from throwing their golf balls into the water after a bad hole? Give the offending ball to a kid watching instead.

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Dixon golf balls are not biodegradable, according to their own website. So selling them to people to hit into the water would be a bad idea.

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Commented on

Thank you for clarifying. I will remove the Dixon balls reference.

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Refer to rule 5.5 You may practice chipping and putting on or close to the tee or, without delaying play, on the hole last played. My understanding is that hitting a full practice shot anywhere on the course is considered practice that incurs the "General Penalty" of two (2) strikes. However, it is permitted to play the course before a round of match play.

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I lived in Southern California, and took my scuba certification dive at Catalina Island. What did I find in 40 feet of water? An orange golf ball. This was back in 1978

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was that a wilson prostaff? as that was my 1st orange ball i found.. made excellent pocket money as kids scouting around for them

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I was guilty in the past of hitting golf balls into any body of water where I could find a spot to stick a peg in the ground. My condo complex abuts a marsh where I would happily hit shag balls until a neighbor admonished me that it is a nesting ground for birds. I saw her point and reluctantly stopped doing that. I also had a New Year's Day tradition (gotta start the year off right!) of hitting some balls into Long Island Sound from a few choice teeing areas. I caught hell from a local couple for doing that and endangering the sea life. Don't think I knocked out any fishes, but I also quit doing that after seeing how upset they were. Golf still has an elitist whiff and I don't want to be seen as someone who thinks they can do whatever they want to the environment. Whether it's political correctness or environmental awareness, I'm not sure. I just know that I've stopped (and miss doing it!).

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Environmental hazard: Is hitting golf balls into nature out of bounds?