How to Play the Foursomes Format

Explaining the golf format used in Ryder Cup, played at clubs

Foursomes partners Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk
Foursomes partners Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk consult on a putt. Furyk is taking the putt for the team, since Snedeker played the previous shot. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Foursomes is a golf competition format in which a team is comprised of two golfers, and those two golfers alternate hitting the same golf ball. That's why Foursomes is also very commonly called "alternate shot." 

The first player tees off, the second player hits the second shot, the first golfer hits the third shot, the second golfer hits the fourth shot, and so on until the ball is holed. The two golfers on a side also alternate hitting tee shots so that the same player doesn't hit every drive.

Here's a hint for Foursomes strategy: Try to determine before the round which are the toughest driving holes on the course being played. Factor that into the decision on who hits the tee ball on the first hole. You want your best driver to be teeing off on as many of the toughest driving holes as possible. The golfer who tees off No. 1 will continue teeing off on odd-numbered holes.

Foursomes on the World Stage

There are hundreds of golf tournament formats and games played by golfers (and probably hundreds more variations on those games), but foursomes is one of the better-known ones.

That's because pro golfers (and prominent amateur golfers) play foursomes (as match play) in some very high-profile events:

  • Ryder Cup: Foursomes has been played at the Ryder Cup in every single tournament, going back to the first one in 1927.
  • Solheim Cup: Foursomes has been part of every Solheim Cup since the first in 1990.
  • Presidents Cup: Foursomes has been part of every Presidents Cup since the first in 1994.

The foursomes match-play format is also used in the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup, the USA vs. Great Britain and Ireland tournaments for top amateur men and women, respectively.

Stroke Play or Match Play

Foursomes can be played as stroke play or match play.

As noted, foursomes match play is part of some very big professional and smateur golf tournaments.

Foursomes (match play or stroke play) is a very common club format in Great Britain and Ireland and is more commonly played throughout the Commonwealth nations than in the United States. In the USA, foursomes is not that common at the club or recreational level.

But foursomes stroke play can make a fun tournament format, or be played by a group of four friends who pair off into 2-person teams. Low strokes wins, obviously, but you can also apply Stableford scoring in stroke play for a twist.

Foursomes in the Rules

All the Official Rules in Golf apply during foursomes play, but there are a few minor variations covered in Rule 29, so be sure to check that out.

Note that penalty strokes do not affect which golfer on the the side plays next. The order of playing strokes is always A-B-A-B and so on. If a team must drop a ball, the player whose turn it is to play next must handle the drop.

Handicap Allowances in Foursomes

Handicap allowances for Foursomes competitions are covered in the USGA Handicap Manual, Section 9-4. Remember that you first must determine the course handicaps of each golfer on a side.

The handicaps in foursomes competition differ depending on the specific format:

Match play, 2 vs. 2: In a foursomes match between between Side A and Side B, first combine the course handicaps of both golfers on a side. Then subtract the lower combined handicaps from the higher combined handicaps, e.g., if Side A's combined handicaps total 12 and Side B's total 27, subtract 12 from 27. Take that total and divide by half. In this example, 27 minus 12 equals 15; 15 divided in half is 7.5, which rounds up to 8. So the higher-handicap side plays off 8 and the lower handicap-side plays off scratch.

The USGA Handicap Manual states it plainly: "The allowance for the higher-handicapped side is 50 percent of the difference between the combined Course Handicap of each side."

Match play vs. Par or Bogey: Combine the partners' handicaps and divide by half.

Stroke play: Handicap allowance is 50-percent of the partners' combined course handicaps. So add the course handicaps together and divide by half.

In all cases, the percentage used in calculating the handicap allowances drops from 50-percent to 40-percent when selected drives are permitted.

Other Names for Foursomes Formats

As noted at the top, alternate shot is a very common name for the foursomes format (watch a video demonstrating alternate shot). The format is also sometimes called Scotch Doubles. A 2-person team consisting of one man and one woman is often called "Mixed Foursomes." Scotch Foursomes is a variation on the format.

And an Alternate Meaning of 'Foursomes'

Any four golfers playing in the same group (regardless of what format they are playing, and regardless of whether those four are together) in a recreational round of golf is colloquially referred to as a "foursome" of golfers. This expression is far more common in the United States than in other parts of the world.