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Playing With What You've Got

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Our tagline for From the Rough, the feature film my partner Pierre Bagley and I are producing, is "playing with what you've got." The tagline reminded me both of the fun of playing sports as a child and how youth sports today are severely lacking in fun. I particularly thought of it when attending the recent PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, where we previewed some of our scenes from From the Rough.

There was outstanding technology from well-respected brand name manufacturers like Calloway, PING, and Titleist. The technology available for avid golfers is more amazing than ever, as is true for serious competitors in any equipment-intensive sport. However, for me, the most interesting exhibitors were companies trying to change the paradigm of how people experience golf.

I loved visiting the SNAG booth ("Starting New at Golf"), which sells soft plastic clubs and balls to help people learn golf fundamentals anywhere. Adventure Golf Services has created "The Golf Court," a practice area of tennis court size installable in most urban settings. Even the "Chicken Stick," a club attached to a TV remote control, turns a TV set into an inexpensive golf simulator. I also enjoyed hearing about almost Golf, which provides equipment and supplies for playing simulated golf in small spaces quite affordably.

These are all attempts to make golf more fun, more accessible and affordable, and more subject to the innovation and resourcefulness we associate with upwardly mobile and highly energized people.

Golf and other sports were quite different experiences when I was growing up. Athletic competition was more informal. The equipment was less expensive, of inferior quality, and not subject to much year-to-year improvement. Instruction was more informal, and was delivered, more often than not, by parents or older boys with whom we played, rather than professional instructors.

While technology, facilities, instruction, and equipment are far better today much has been lost. Only wealthy people can afford the requirements for competitive sports excellence. However, the greatest loss is the resourcefulness needed for sports and games. Decades ago, the iconic baseball image was not an organized game on a manicured field, but Willie Mays creating a makeshift baseball field on the streets of Harlem which he used to play stickball with local kids. The iconic basketball venue was the asphalt-paved playground court, not a fancy arena.

Great athletes honed their skills by using what was available to them, rather than having access to the best equipment at the best athletic venues. Golfer John Daly increased his short-game precision on an underused Little League field. The pitching mound, bases and foul lines were markers, and he hit from near home plate. Jackie Robinson honed base-running skills as the dodge ball champion of his Pasadena neighborhood park. Mariano Rivera, the great Yankee pitcher, created twine balls from fishing nets and developed his pitching skills heaving a twine ball.

The PGA vendors I mentioned above, SNAG, Adventure Golf Services, Chicken Stick, and almostGolf, as well as those who offer similar services, are consistent with the innovative traditions of Mays, Daly, Robinson, and Rivera by creating tools to help people play with what they've got.

Much of life's fun is successfully using limited resources creatively. Turning a rooftop tennis court into a golf practice range, using a Little League field to practice golf, making a baseball from fishing nets, or using a street to play stickball remind us of the resourceful joy of sports we must recreate.

Why does this matter? Aside from the important roles that sports and informal games play in our lives, we live in a time of resource scarcity. The ability to make better use of what we have and to combine our assets and resources in new ways is what innovation is all about. Steven Johnson's great book Where Good Ideas Come From uses the term "bricolage" to describe the random and often undervalued raw material from which innovations are crafted. Americans need to understand that the innovation, resourcefulness, and fun they had a generation ago in learning how to play sports and games with limited resources will be needed again to help us navigate successfully in increasingly competitive global markets.

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