Diving, once a hobby, has become a full time job for a former golf professional. His only handicap was that when he tried to register his business, Jérôme Dugué found that no such job officially exists.
The computer codes used by the government to register micro-entrepreneurs do not cover people making their living by diving into golf course water hazards to collect thousands of lost balls a month.
“Eventually, they said I would have to register under a code for a recycler of toxic waste,” said Mr Dugué, who lives near Toulon, in the Var.
“There are few golf ball recyclers in France and very few who dive to find the balls – I know of only one other anywhere near me.”
Mr Dugué, a keen sub-aqua diver, occasionally dived in the water features of golf courses while working as a pro at a club. “Then the club decided to get rid of most of the pros in 2015 and I thought that rather than go round all the courses again looking for work, I would do something different.
“I decided to have a go at diving for golf balls. It has worked out better than I could have imagined.”
Modern golf balls are now almost all solid plastic, unlike older ones, which had a resin-based outer cover over a tightly wrapped elastic ribbon, with a rubber ball, often filled with a liquid, in the centre.
“Like all plastic, they do not biodegrade,” said Mr Dugué. “Instead, when they are left in water for a time or out in the air, the plastic starts to flake off into small pieces. It is not good for the wildlife, which establishes itself in the water features.
“Eventually, the water feature will probably be drained or filled in, and all the plastic in the water will end up in the rivers and the sea.”
Diving, once a hobby, has become serious – and sometimes uncomfortable – work. “You are in the silt at the bottom of the feature and have zero visibility. In winter, it's cold, 6C, and you get cold even in a wetsuit,” he said. “I feel around with my hands for the balls, which I put in a net around my neck, while dealing with all sorts of branches, bottles, stones and other things people throw in.
'There are giant carp, which come out of nowhere and bump you; snakes, which make your heart jump; or coypu, which come up and are fascinated by what you do'
Most of the water features are around six metres deep. Some are shallower, but one, made out of a former quarry, is 20 metres deep. Dives take between 15 and 45 minutes and Mr Degué has a circuit of 15 golf courses. The crop harvested is impressive: an average of 500,000 balls a year.
Before they can be sold, they have to be cleaned in mechanical washers, sorted by brand, and graded from almost new to barely playable.
More than half the balls are exported to Canada, where using recycled balls for environmental reasons has long been part of golf culture.
In France, it is much more difficult to sell recycled golf balls but Mr Dugué does so through specialised websites, and through the well-known sports supermarket chain Decathlon.
He also sells directly via email@example.com and through a Facebook page called Ecoballes.
Prices of new golf balls range from €0.50 to €6, depending on quality, while recycled ones go for €0.08 to €2.
It is not uncommon for club golfers to lose three balls every time they play 18 holes. With golfers complaining that some water features act as magnets to attract balls, Mr Dugué does not fear being put out of work.