By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) - Pebble Beach Golf Links, which hosts the U.S. Open this week, hopes the world's best golfers will keep their balls on the fairways and out of the sensitive coastal waters, which have been overwhelmed by decades of golf ball pollution.
The Pebble Beach Company has made reducing the number of balls that reach the ocean a priority, posting signs letting players of all levels know not to hit into the water and sending divers to help collect any errant balls.
The extent of the environmental problem was first identified three years ago by teenager Alex Weber after she came across something she had never seen before while diving in California -- a white sea floor.
"It was just blanketed in this mess of golf balls," she told Reuters this week. "Seeing the vast scale of pollution from such an identifiable source made me wonder why no one was doing anything about it."
So Weber took matters into her own hands, first by picking up the balls and then connecting with a researcher at Stanford University who suggested they collaborate on a scientific research paper.
They went on to publish the first paper about golf ball marine pollution, which got the attention of the National Marine Sanctuary and officials at the course itself.
In February the Pebble Beach Company agreed to conduct around 200 underwater clean ups every year for five years or until a "dramatic shift" is seen in the underwater environment.
"We had no idea what it would become when this started," said Weber, 19, who recently completed her second year at California's Cabrillo College, where she studies environmental science.
"It's all coming together."
FOOD CHAIN AFFECTED
Golf balls find their way into the marine environment fairly easily since the famed course sits directly on the Pacific Ocean.
No one is sure exactly how many balls are under the waves but Weber's research estimated there are between two and five million in Pebble Beach's Stillwater Cove area alone.
Each ball is the equivalent to the mass of seven plastic grocery bags or three plastic water bottles, she said.
The balls are bad for the environment because as they break down, some release a core that includes about 300 yards of stretched rubber, which is wound around a smaller ball at its core.
The rubber floats to the surface, mixing with the kelp while the cover disintegrates into smaller shards of plastic, which are eaten by plankton and other marine life.
"They contribute to the micro-plastics problem, getting into the food chain and ultimately into us," she said.
Solid core balls do not release rubber but include toxic chemicals that will kill aquatic life when it comes in contact with them, she said.
The problem extends beyond Pebble Beach. Ocean and riverside courses all contribute to golf ball pollution, she said.
Weber said she hoped the Pebble Beach Company would serve as an example for other courses.
"It was really excited to see that they've taken those first steps and hopefully they become a leader in the golf industry -- showing other courses how to run their sustainability programs," she said.
In the meantime, Weber has big plans for the 50,000 golf balls she has collected with the Plastic Pick-Up, an environmental organization she founded.
"We're building a 30-foot long barreling golf ball wave that people can walk into, stand on a surf board and get barreled in trash," she added.
The transportable sculpture will be displayed at different surfing events, concerts and festivals to raise awareness about the issue.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)