If you’ve watched the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup, chances are you’ve asked yourself… “What is a four-ball format in golf?”
In those events they typically play four ball and foursomes. While they sound like the same type of format, they are 100% different. Hint: four ball is much easier than foursomes.
Keep reading to learn more about four ball competition to see if it’s the right type of event for you and a partner.
Four Ball Golf Format
There are a lot of different ways to play this crazy game of golf. While most of us are accustomed to traditional stroke play as an individual there are tons of ways to play.
So, what is the difference between these types of events and a traditional four-ball event?
Four Ball 101
Four ball in golf (also commonly referred to as best ball or better ball) is a pairs playing format.
Here’s the formal definition from the USGA, “Four-Ball is a form of play (in either match play or stroke play) involving partners where you and your partner compete together as a side, with each of you playing your own ball, and your side’s score for a hole is the lower score of the two of you on that hole.”
With a four-ball format, every player will play his or her own ball the entire hole. The best score for the hole is the team’s score.
You do not need to count both scores as it’s not a combined total.
It’s normal for two pairs of partners to play together for a foursome group (hence the term, four ball). But that doesn’t mean they’re always playing against each other (more on that later).
Rules of Four-Ball
While the format does closely resemble traditional stroke play, there are a few key differences.
First, both players do not need to hole out. You only need to take one score for the group.
So if one player makes a four and their partner is going to make a big number, they don’t need to finish the hole. Unlike stroke play, both players aren’t required to finish the hole.
As a reminder, only one score counts. It’s not a cumulative score of the group.
If both players hole out, the lower score is the one that is counted. If only one player holes out, that is the score that is counted. And if for some reason when neither partner holes out, the team would lose the hole in a match play event. Or, if it was a stroke play event, that team would be disqualified unless the mistake is corrected in time.
Four ball Stroke Play Format
What’s great about the four-ball format is that you can use it with handicap match/stroke play. With stroke play, it’s pretty simple – each player plays their own ball. Only one ball counts so your partner’s ball is in bad shape, no worries.
The gross score is then counted after 18 holes and compared with the rest of the field. If it’s a multi-day event, it’s common to repair groups each day based on the leaderboard.
The important part is making sure you get the score correct on the scorecard as it can get a little messy. Here are the best practices according to the same USGA article from above:
- “The gross score of at least one partner must be entered on your scorecard
- There is no penalty for entering more than one partner’s score on the scorecard
- Each score on the scorecard must be clearly identified as the score of the individual partner who made it; if this is not done, your side is disqualified.”
Four ball Match Play Format
Additionally, you can use this awesome format in match play events too.
The same rules apply for the most part, including the fact that both players don’t need to finish. Only one match score is counted; a team wins by one, loses by one, or ties the hole.
The biggest thing to remember with match play in four-ball is the order of play.
You and your partner can play in the order you want (closest doesn’t necessarily matter). For example, if player A has a 6-foot birdie putt and his teammate player B has a 4-foot par putt, player B can go first.
This is a good strategy sometimes to free up your teammate. But once the hole is conceded, make sure to know the rules too.
Here’s what the USGA said, “You must not continue play of a hole after your next stroke has been conceded if this would help your partner. If you do so, your score for the hole stands without penalty, but your partner’s score for the hole cannot count for your side.”
Finally, no scorecard is required for match play events.
Famous Four Ball Tournaments
While scrambles, shambles, and Chapman golf formats are common for amateur golfers, they don’t exist in the professional world. However, four-ball events have been a standard in pro golf for decades.
Perhaps the best example of professionals using this type of format is the Ryder Cup. The three-day competition between Team USA vs. Team Europe is always one of the most entertaining weeks of the year. The pride the players have paired with excellent courses make for some of the best golf ever.
The formats also make it fun to watch too. They play four ball format on Friday and Saturday during one session (they play 36 holes on the first two days) before the Sunday single matches. Watching the best of the best play their own ball in this type of format tends to lead to some great scores and matches.
The Presidents Cup, which is hosted every other year in conjunction with the Ryder Cup, also uses a four-ball format.
While this type of format isn’t as common in everyday amateur events since it’s not as easy as a scramble, it’s used for top tier events. For example, the USGA has their Four Ball event every year and brings the best of the players from around the country. This event started in 2015 to replace the U.S. Amateur Public Links which was an individual tournament that went from 1922 to 2014.
Each player must have a handicap of 5.4 or less and register for a local 18-hole four-ball qualifying event that gets the team into the big event. The venues change but can happen all over the country at top courses. This event has been hosted at golf courses like Chambers Bay, Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst Resort, and Olympic Club.
At the event, players compete in a 36-hole stroke play qualifier that determines the field of 32 teams for match play. Then it turns to match play until the winner is determined. There is also a U.S. Women’s amateur four ball event as well.
Finally, it’s important to note that most member guest tournaments will have a component of four ball match play.
FAQs About Golf Formats
Do you have more questions about other types of popular golf tournaments? If so, keep reading to learn more now.
Why do they call it four-ball?
I’ll be honest this confused me for a long time since it’s a partner competition, not a four-man event. I always wondered why it was called four-ball instead of two-ball?
But the R&A in 1908 deemed it four-ball since four separate balls were in play during the match. Such a rule for the stroke play version of this type of tournament didn’t exist until 1952.
How is a four-ball in golf scored?
The rules differ if it’s a match play or stroke play event. Regardless, each golfer plays their own ball for the entire hole but has the option to not finish. Only one score is counted for the group so it’s okay if one player elects not to finish the hole.
What are the rules of four-ball best ball in golf?
There are quite a few rules that are listed above. The biggest thing to remember is that in four ball it’s not required for both players to finish the hole. Only one score is counted toward the total team score but it’s important to fill out the scorecard correctly.
With match play, it’s important to play in the proper order (the team furthest from the cup always plays first). But no scorecard is required in match play – one of the team’s needs to let the scoring officials know who won.
However, one random rule I found while researching this article was Rule 23.7, which references sharing clubs. According to the USGA, “You and your partner are allowed to share clubs, so long as the total number of clubs you have together is not more than 14.”
What is the difference between foursomes and four-ball in golf?
Foursomes and four-ball are very different despite the similarities in names.
Foursomes are known as alternate shots in which partners don’t play their own golf ball. Instead, only one ball is used per hole and the team takes alternate shots until the hole is completed.
Team members take turns teeing off with odd or even numbered holes. This is the most commonly seen in match play.
What are the rules of foursomes in golf?
There are a lot of rules in foursomes but the biggest thing to remember is that only one ball is used on the hole. Players alternate teeing off on odd vs. even holes and then the partner hits the next shot. Players continue to alternate until the hole is complete.
Final Thoughts on Four Ball Match Play
Four-ball is a fun way to play with a partner and a lot easier to score well compared to foursomes. It’s also a cool format because you can use it in both match play and stroke play events too.
Some of the best Ryder Cup moments have happened with this style of golf. Try it out next time you’re out with friends and see what happens!