How to Play a Three Ball Match in Golf

The Competition Format Is for a Group of Three Golfers

Three ball format has three golf balls in play on each hole
Three ball is - you won't be surprised - a golf format for groups of three. Richard Heathcote/Photolibrary/Getty Images

In a "three ball" golf match, the members of a group of three golfers compete in match play against one another, with each member of the group playing simultaneous matches against each of the other two members.

The Three Ball format is one of only a handful of formats other than singles match play and stroke play that is specifically mentioned in the Rules of Golf. It is an excellent choice for a group of three golfers out for a friendly yet competitive round of golf.

Definition of Three Ball in the Rules

Golf's governing bodies, the USGA and R&A, provide a definition of three ball under their "Forms of Match Play" definition in the rule book:

"Three-Ball: Three players play a match against one another, each playing his own ball. Each player is playing two distinct matches."

Example of Three Ball Pairings

As an example, let's say you and two of your buddies decide to play a three ball match. We'll call you golfers A, B and C. You play as a group of three, each playing your own golf ball, and score at match play.

These are the pairings:

  • Golfer A is playing one match against B and another against C.
  • Golfer B is playing one match against C and another against A.
  • Golfer C is playing one match against A and another against B.

Again, each golfer in your group is playing two matches simultaneously, one against each of the other two members of the group.

Rules Differences in Three Ball

The vast majority of formats and games we explain are not covered in the official rules. But three ball is.

Rule 30 is titled "Three-Ball, Best-Ball and Four-Ball Match Play."

And Rule 30-2 includes two clauses that pertain specifically to the format of three ball. Quoting from the rule book:

30-2. Three-Ball Match Play
a. Ball at Rest Moved or Purposely Touched by an Opponent

If an opponent incurs a penalty stroke under Rule 18-3b, that penalty is incurred only in the match with the player whose ball was touched or moved. No penalty is incurred in his match with the other player.
b. Ball Deflected or Stopped by an Opponent Accidentally
If a player's ball is accidentally deflected or stopped by an opponent, his caddie or equipment, there is no penalty. In his match with that opponent the player may, before another stroke is made by either side, cancel the stroke and play a ball, without penalty, as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played (see Rule 20-5) or he may play the ball as it lies. In his match with the other opponent, the ball must be played as it lies.
Exception: Ball striking person attending or holding up flagstick or anything carried by him - see Rule 17-3b.
(Ball purposely deflected or stopped by opponent - see Rule 1-2)

Otherwise, all other Rules of Golf apply. These are the only variances for three ball.

A Couple More Notes About the Three Ball Format

  • When playing three ball, be careful not to pick up your ball after one opponent concedes a hole or a putt. Remember: You're playing two matches simultaneously. Just because one opponent gave you a concession doesn't mean the other will, too!
  • And don't confuse "three ball" with "threesome." The format called threesome is a "match in which one player plays against two other players, and each side plays one ball." In other words, in a threesome match, you play as a single against a team of two golfers who are playing alternate shot. ("Threesome" is also, in common usage, a synonym for any group of three golfers who are playing a round together.)