How to Play the Four Ball Golf Format

Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal shaking hands during a 1989 Ryder Cup four ball match
Seve Ballesteros (left) and Jose Maria Olazabal partnered one another in many four ball matches at the Ryder Cup. David Cannon/Getty Images

"Four ball" is the name of a golf format in which two golfers partner one another, each golfer playing his or her own golf ball throughout, and the lower of the partners' scores counting as the team score on each hole.

Four ball is usually played as match play, with two, 2-person teams facing off. In fact, that is where the name "four ball" comes from: In a four ball match, there are four golf balls in play on each hole.

Four ball can also be used as a stroke-play tournament format, but if it is, it might be called by another name (especially in a club or association tournament or the like), such as better ball or 2-person best ball.

Four Ball in Pro Golf

There are several big team tournaments in professional golf that use four ball match play as one of their competition formats: the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup. Those are the biggies when it comes to international team tournaments.

Four ball has been part of the Presidents Cup since that tournament's debut in 1994; it has also been used in the Solheim Cup since that event started in 1990.

However, four ball was not one of the original formats used in the Ryder Cup. When the Ryder Cup debuted in 1927 and all the way through the 1961 match, only foursomes and singles matches were played. Four ball was added to the tournament beginning with the 1963 Ryder Cup.

As for the biggest amateur team international tournaments: The Walker Cup does not use four ball, the Curtis Cup does.

Example of Scoring in a Four Ball Match

So how does scorekeeping work in a four ball match? We'll call our two teams Side 1, consisting of Golfers A and B; and Side 2, consisting of Golfers C and D.

On the first hole, all four golfers tee off, and all four golfers in the match play their own golf balls until holed. The partners compare scores: Which of them made the better score on the hole? If Golfer A scores 4 and Golfer B scores 6 on the first hole, then Side 1's score on that hole is 4. If Side 2 gets a 3 from Golfer C and a 6 from Golfer D, the team's score is 3. And Side 2, in this example, wins the first hole, 3 to 4.

In a stroke-play four ball tournament, the two golfers on a side mark down the lower of their two scores on each hole, then tally it up at the end of the round and compare that total to the field.

Four Ball In the Rules

Because of the team nature of four ball, there are a few minor differences in the rules for four ball competition. See the following:

The official definition in the rules of golf of four ball match play is this:

"A match in which two players play their better ball against the better ball of two other players."

The official definition in the Rules of Golf of four ball stroke play is this:

"A competition in which two competitors play as partners, each playing his own ball. The lower score of the partners is the score for the hole. If one partner fails to complete the play of the hole, there is no penalty."

Handicaps in Four Ball

Handicap allowances for four ball competitions are addressed in the USGA handicap manual, Section 9-4 (www.usga.com).

As always, the four golfers involved in the match start by determining their course handicaps.

In four ball match play, the USGA says: "The course Handicap of all four players is reduced by the course handicap of the player with the lowest handicap, who then plays from scratch. Each of the three other players is allowed 100 percent of the difference." See Section 9-4a(iii) of the USGA Handicap Manual for more.

In four ball stroke play, the two golfers on a side are allowed 90-percent of their course handicaps for men, 95-percent of their course handicaps for women. See Section 9-4b(ii) of the USGA Handicap Manual for more details.

A Note on Spelling

The USGA and R&A use "four ball" - two words - as the spelling.

However, it is more common to see it spelled as one word - fourball. A hyphenated spelling - four-ball - is also common. All are acceptable.