The Man with the Biodegradable Balls

What drives seemingly intelligent and enlightened human beings to whack golf balls off the fantails of ocean liners? A momentary feeling of liberation as the dimpled sphere soars unimpeded toward the infinite? A symbolic and finite deep-sixing of worldly problems? The comforting knowledge that this is a water hazard you intend to hit? Or is it simply boredom?

"I liken it to spittin' off a bridge," concludes Patrick Kane, a California engineer. "It's an intriguing thing. Every kid likes to drop things off a high point and see what happens." A weekend golfer with a thirteen handicap, Kane hopped aboard a cruise liner in the spring of 1990 hoping to swat a few Titleists into the briny deep. But to his dismay, amid the shuffleboard and sunbathers, he caught no glimpse of the linksman's beloved triumvirate: tee, ball, and driver. That very year, in response to growing concerns about threats to sea life, the International Maritime Organization prohibited ships from dumping any plastic waste A including golf balls A putting a stop to the cruise-ship pastime. (Before the ban, Kane estimates, passengers were swatting about 500,000 balls per month into the ocean.)

"My mind got to worrying on the whole topic. The second I got off the cruise ship I started to do some experimenting with some materials at home," remembers Kane, who lives on the outskirts of San Diego. His goal was to create a ball that was environmentally friendly and didn't violate the international dumping ban. For months he shuttled between his kitchen and his garage, toying with various materials and ruining most of his cooking appliances. "I'm a manufacturing engineer by trade, but it was really learn-while-you-run," he says. "If I pull it out of the kitchen and it's there for human consumption, I figure I'm on the right track."

Eventually he arrived at something that looked and felt a lot like a golf ball, and he dubbed it the Aquaflyte. Unlike typical balls, which have a plastic skin and a solid rubber core, Kane's Aquaflyte is composed of an outer skin of cellulose (derived from materials like paper pulp, sawdust, straw, or twine and bound by a water-soluble adhesive of gelatin, animal protein, flour paste, citrus byproducts, or seaweed derivatives) and a core containing a variety of biodegradable materials, including sodium bicarbonate -- household baking soda.

If that list of ingredients seems vague, it is.
Although he secured a patent in March 1992 that covered a wide range of possible materials -- "the one and only water-soluble golf ball patent on the face of the Earth," Kane notes proudly -- he's protecting the final formula like a cherished putter. "I don't want to give the recipe away," the ballmeister explains. "A patent is only as good as the amount of money you can throw at it to defend it if somebody tries to challenge it."

This much is known: Kane's Aquaflyte is a sea-friendly mist-green color (the coloring agent for white would make the ball too heavy); it has the same diameter and dimpled surface as a standard ball, but it flies only about one-third the distance. According to Mark Schmersal, a Southern California long-drive champion and Kane's "test gorilla," the ball can stand up to a couple of dozen good whacks before it begins to break apart. Most important, the Aquaflyte turns to mush in seawater after about 24 hours, dissolving completely within four days. "It's basically fish food," says Kane.

The entrepreneur has entered into a manufacturing agreement with a company in the Florida Panhandle city of Carrabelle. Estimating that he can get about 50 cents per ball wholesale, he is also trying to hawk his product to several cruise lines; this past year he nearly made a deal with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. According to a Royal Caribbean executive, the cruise line had tested some of Kane's homemade prototypes and put in an order for about 10,000 balls. "When he got his manufactured product to us, it had a strange odor and we could only drive the balls 50 to 60 yards," remembers Edward Bollinger, vice president of purchasing, properties, and logistics. The problem, Bollinger asserts, wasn't weak test-duffers. "Something went wrong in his production process," the VP asserts. "They were just duds."

A minor manufacturing error, shrugs Kane, who insists the factory-produced balls are now as good as homemade and that they will be soaring off ships within months. After cornering the shipboard golf market, Kane adds, he plans to sell the Aquaflyte to oil rigs, owners of oceanfront real estate, and the novelty market. He also hopes to grab an endorsement from an environmental organization. "I see our organization joining with Greenpeace or some type of group like that to get their support," Kane says.

Can a signature line of Jacques Cousteau golf clubs be far behind?


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