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Nicky Dorfel straps the oxygen tanks to his back, pulls the goggles over his eyes and walks into the lake. He keeps going until he’s fully submerged.  

It’s a competitive field but this is right up there with the weirdest things you’ll ever see on a golf course.  

Over the next few hours, he scours the lakebed retrieving lost golf balls. In a good day, he’ll recover hundreds.

Today, though? Today is a great day.

It’s the Wednesday of the Soudal Open at Rinkven International Golf Club near Antwerp and whilst Ryan Fox, Sam Horsfield, Nicolas Colsaerts and Co. are preparing for the tournament, Dorfel and his dive partner Martijn Doorn are salvaging more than 3,500 balls from lakes dotted around the course.  

It’s all in a day’s work for the 33-year-old Dutchman. The owner of lakeballs company Golf-Square – headquartered in Raamsdonksveer, around an hour’s drive south of Amsterdam – Dorfel dives around 170 courses per year, mainly across Belgium, Holland, France and Germany. He cleans up, too. In a typical year, he’ll find close to one million.

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He and his team take the balls back to their factory, clean them up, sort them into one of approximately 300 different types – based on brand and condition – and sell them on their website. It’s a shrewd and slick little enterprise and, for Dorfel, it neatly combines two of his biggest passions.  

“I grew up close to a golf course so, from about the age of 12, I was always there, playing every chance I got,” he says. “When I was 18, that’s when I first took an interest in scuba diving.”  

Around the same time, he took a summer job at Golfbaan Landgoed De Kurenpolder, a popular club south-east of Rotterdam. In his time there, Dorfel found hundreds of balls in the water, which planted a seed.

Two years later, in 2012, he launched Golfballennederland.nl, now Golf-Square.   

Nicky Dorfel 2
Nicky Dorfel 3

What might at first sound like a side-hustle is full-time work, and intensive work at that. Dorfel spends four days per week on the road actually diving for balls, regularly spending several hours per day under water. The other three days are spent cleaning the balls, sorting them into their various categories – a labour-intensive, manual process – before they are prepared for shipping. This ain’t no hobby.  

His team is small but hard-working. In addition to one permanent employee, he also works with a team of ‘freelance’ divers, whilst his girlfriend handles the logistics, admin and sales side of the business.  

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It’s a nice little earner for the golf clubs who make use of Dorfel’s services, too. They receive ten cents for every ball he recovers from one of their water features, which is to say nothing of the obvious environmental benefits of having golf balls retrieved from the lakes rather than being left to pollute them. It’s a win-win for everybody, even if it is, more often than not, pretty hard going.  

“Most times, it is really dark under the water,” adds Dorfel. “You can’t see anything. You’re having to just rely on feeling your way around with your hands and hoping you find things. It’s dangerous, too. Most of the lakes we dive are around two metres deep but sometimes they can be as much as nine or ten metres, so you have to have the right equipment and training.

“It’s not as simple as just diving in. You need to be a qualified, experienced diver to do this job. There are lots of things you can get tangled in, for instance.”

Some dives are more fruitful than others but Dorfel recently had his most successful one to date.  

“We found over 90,000 balls the other day at Scherpenbergh Golf Club,” he laughs. “We’re going back soon because we reckon there might be another 40,000 still to be recovered. And I always really enjoy diving at GolfClub Gergvliet. There’s a nice, small lake by the 18th hole there and we usually get around 25- to 30,000 balls from it each year.” 

Of course, it’s not just mishit balls that Dorfel comes across during his dives. “You would be surprised how many sets of golf clubs there are down there,” he laughs. “I’ve also, on two separate occasions, found safes that have been stolen in clubhouse burglaries. They’ve obviously been emptied and tossed in the water. You see a lot of strange things down there.”  

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More recently, Dorfel has been putting his skills to work on behalf of the DP World Tour. At the aforementioned Soudal Open in Belgium, as well as the Porsche European Open at the Green Eagle Golf Course near Munich and select other events, the balls he retrieved were cleaned up and added to the DP World Golf Ball Container.  

Launched at the start of the year to mark the first season of the DP World Tour, the repurposed 20-foot shipping container is travelling to a variety of tour stops this year where spectators, players and other tournament attendees will be invited to donate used and unwanted golf balls.

They will then be redistributed to organisations that are championing golf from the grassroots up, to help grow the game globally.

Nicky Dorfel 4

The container, which has capacity for up to 200,000 balls and will weigh close to 12 tonnes when full, made its first appearance at the Dubai Desert Classic in January with further scheduled stops before the end of the season set to include the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in September and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November.

The idea is the brainchild of DP World, the title sponsor of the tour, which is coordinating efforts using its logistical expertise and network of ports, terminals and inland hubs.

The scheme is well timed. Golf enjoyed a huge global boom as a result of Covid and, as the world gradually returns to normal in a post-pandemic sense, the game’s stakeholders and power-brokers are understandably keen to maintain that positive momentum.

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That, though, is easier said than done. Supply-chain challenges brought about by the pandemic have impacted the industry in many different ways. Equipment manufacturers have struggled to make clubs and balls quickly enough to satisfy demand. In the Middle East alone, trade in golf apparel is expected to surpass $45m by 2026, but a fall in production levels, driven by supply shortages, is significantly impacting imports. This is where DP World believes it can come in.

“Global supply chain disruptions triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to impact the import of sports and leisure equipment into the Middle East, including golf equipment,” explained Daniel van Otterdijk, the Chief Communications Officer at DP World. “With our passion to support golf’s global ecosystem, combined with our world-leading logistics and supply chain solutions, DP World is perfectly positioned to alleviate this pressure and meet the rising popularity of golf.”

As far as Dorfel is concerned, it’s a fun thing to be part of. “When DP World called me and talked me through their Golf Ball Container, I wanted to help,” he says. “It’s an amazing initiative, helping to give golf balls a second life and I’m glad I’ve been able to play my part.”

To find out more about the DP World Golf Ball Container, visit the website.


author headshot

Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

Deputy Editor

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