The essence of golf is competition. Regardless of your opponent, or even if you're just competing against par, you need to compete if you want to improve your scores. The same goes for the way you practice. A competitive atmosphere transforms the simple act of hitting balls into a hardcore learning experience. This is especially true on the greens, where developing a winning attitude—and a pressure-proof stroke—will have an immediate impact on your game.
My son, Eddie, and I compete all the time when we practice. We do it by playing putting games. Our favorite is "12-Ball." It's easy and fun. Place 12 balls around the hole at the hour positions on a clock, each ball six feet from the cup. (The putt on the high side of the hole is at twelve o'clock, and the one on the low side is at six.) Mark each spot with a tee to identify the 12 positions, then simultaneously start putting from opposite sides of the clock—one stroke each at every hour position (photo, right). After the first six putts, reset the balls and finish going around the clock. The winner is the one with the most one-putts out of 12. Play this game a few times and you'll learn several valuable lessons:
1. The golfer who starts at six o'clock (low side of the circle) usually takes the early lead, because uphill putts break less and are easier to read.
2. Things usually even out on the downhill putts, so after all 12 putts are completed, it's the best six-foot putter who usually wins.
3. Regardless of where you set up your game, you'll face only about two straight (or almost-straight) putts—the ones at or near twelve and six (high side and low side).
4. Because you're competing, you instantly ramp up your focus, grinding on every putt [probably not something you do when you're casually rolling practice balls]. The pressure gets thick near the end, but that's the point—it makes you a gamer on the course, where it counts.
5. If you set a time limit for each putt [Eddie and I use 30 seconds], you'll amplify your focus even further. And because you're on the clock, you won't dillydally with your reads. Instead, you'll go with what your eyes immediately tell you [usually your best read] and smoothly pull the trigger.
If you enjoy playing this game as much as Eddie and I do, mix it up. Play it from 12 feet and from three feet, so you can practice all the key distances under pressure. The skills you develop during competitive practice will translate to the course faster than the ones honed in drills. Not only that, you'll have a lot of fun. That's when practice leads to lasting improvement.