His job sounds like a gimmick: put on a diving suit, pick up golf balls from the ponds, scrub off the mud and resell. But this is no longer a hobby, this is a lucrative business. In his shed, golf balls are piled up to six meters high. There are 1.5 million, Nicky estimates. They are currently still cleaned by hand and sorted by brand, model and quality. They are then resold to golfers, golf courses or Decathlon, where the second-hand balls are sold online.
Started as a hobby
This all started as a hobby. Nicky grew up without a father. The family survived on his mother’s benefit. “My mother is my best friend. She always supports me and my brother. She also helps me in the business and cooks for me when I’m home late. Then there is a plate of food ready.”
Because there used to be little money at home, Nicky always worked hard when he wanted something. Those ‘somethings’ were mainly fishing gear, he says. As a boy of twelve, he went every weekend with a fishing rod and some bait to a nearby pond and enjoyed the tranquility of the water there. The Kurenpolder, the pond on the edge of the Biesbosch where eels and pikes swam, was situated on a golf course. When his lunch box was empty, he filled it with golf balls he found at the water’s edge. He cleaned them and sold them to golfers in the parking lot for a dollar each.
Value in waste
At the age of sixteen he arranged a job on the golf course. There he mowed the grass. “At the same time I collected the golf balls, which I then sold on Marktplaats.” Buy Sell. Seeing value in ‘waste’, that typifies Nicky. Later he worked in the recycling center and regularly fished out discarded items from the containers. “Like an expensive series of old Donald Ducks and I had gas cylinders re-approved and then resold them.”
He continued to pick up golf balls. He made a deal with the golf course where he worked and was also asked by other jobs in the area. One day, a Belgian owner of three golf courses asked Nicky to take the golf balls out of the water. “That lake was two meters deep. I had only picked up balls from ponds up to knee height and never had to go under.”
He decided to get his diving license and buy some diving equipment. A few months later he drove to Belgium, put on a diving mask, put in his mouthpiece and got to work.
Company or job
Three years later, this led to his own company, golfballenederland.nl. He was just so busy with that that his first permanent job at the Water Board in Den Bosch – he granted permits – came under pressure. “Colleagues realized that I was too busy with my own company during working hours. I had to choose: either my company or my job.”
Do what your heart is, his mother gave him that. Try it. “I like pushing boundaries, just going for it,” says Nicky. He has been diagnosed with a mild form of ADHD, he continues. That definitely works to his advantage. “I’m busy, I have a lot of energy, and I can use it well in this work.”
The hard work did not immediately pay off in the first four years. He just turned a profit, or just a loss. It was the competition, Nicky thinks. “But I saw an upward trend in the clientele. My family supported me and motivated me to keep going.” He went back to live with his mother to cut costs and expanded his business with all kinds of golf related stuff.
Not only did his webshop grow, so did the number of golf courses where he was allowed to dive into the water. He now has a deal with 250 golf courses in Europe. He dives in Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden and Austria. “The one in Austria is really beautiful. Surrounded by high mountains and nature.” The water, clear and cold, lapped against a rock wall and flowed under it, he says. An amazing place to roam the lake with a net in his hand looking for golf balls.
That diving is purely professional by the way. Nicky doesn’t fly to tropical seas specifically to watch fish. And that water is unfortunately never as clear as in Austria. Most ponds, lakes and puddles on European golf courses are mud pits with a thick layer of silt on the bottom. Nicky then wades through a mixture of dry leaves and mud with a net in his hand, looking for balls. “It’s hard work,” he admits.
It’s also tough because he often gets up at 4 a.m. to be on a golf course around 7 a.m. “Otherwise the balls will fly over my head.” This happens with some regularity, by the way. “I often got away well,” he laughs. Once he got a ball in his collar. “It fell out of the tree. A colleague was hit by a golfer once.”
It is risky work. He works in the line from the tee to the holes, where most of the balls are. “When I’m two meters underwater, I don’t notice a golf ball hitting the water above me. That’s why we start early in the morning with the surface waters and end up underwater.”
Thousands of spectators
Last year he was asked for the DP World Tour, a worldwide golf tournament sponsored by a state-owned company in Dubai (Dubai Ports World). “This was definitely my highlight. I dived the balls out of the water there during the final.”
The golf world wants to become more sustainable. To promote the sale of second-hand balls, Nicky was asked to remove the balls from the water in front of thousands of spectators and various cameras. The 130,000 balls he collected in Dubai and at previous DP tournaments were distributed to organizations that promote golf among young people and the underprivileged.
This action brought him worldwide attention for his company. “Media from all over the world also got involved and we received numerous inquiries from golf clubs.” We had to do something about that, Nicky thought. So he and a friend set up a new international company, Golf Square International. They now also dive at various golf courses in the Middle East such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Egypt and Qatar.
Nicky and his business partner are busy. They now have three employees and a number of self-employed divers. The employees have all become professional divers and received golf training. To understand the rules of the game and thus ensure their own safety. “Because it is often too dark to dive before or after the course closes, we do so when the course is open. We are not allowed to cause any nuisance, so we need to know what a safe working environment is and where it is dangerous. The pros almost never hit the ball in the water. But the less experienced golfer sometimes wants to lose a ball there.”
First golf ball sorting machine in Europe
His team is getting so many golf courses out of the water that he is now building a new 2000 m2 warehouse. Nicky says he has three hundred types of balls that are sold under four different quality standards. Is there a scratch on it? Is it an expensive ball or a cheap one?
There are still 1.5 million balls in the old shed and they are short of hands to clean and sort them. That is why he has invested in a machine that takes over this work. “20,000 golf balls are placed in a funnel. They then go on a conveyor belt and are photographed by three cameras. The balls are blown off the belt into the correct container using air pressure.”
Become a millionaire
According to him, it is the first golf ball sorting machine in Europe, designed by a company that also makes machines for sorting apples, peppers and biscuits. He hopes to continue growing with it. Not only for the euros – although he wants to become a millionaire – also for nature. “Why buy new ones when thousands of second-hand balls are good enough? Of course it has to yield something, but I also love nature. We no longer use plastic in the company and we work with biodegradable cleaning agents when we clean the balls.”
Nicky has boundless energy. Because he has turned his hobby into his job, the many hours he puts into his business often don’t even feel like work. This week he will dive again in Nivelles, Belgium, on one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, says Nicky. “It’s on the estate of a 16th-century castle surrounded by ancient trees. I think it’s fantastic that I get to work in these kinds of special places.”
Every Sunday we publish an interview in text and photos of someone who does or has experienced something special. That can be a major event that he or she handles admirably. The Sunday interviews have in common that the story has a major influence on the life of the interviewee.
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