Golf StoriesRules Spotlight – Four-Ball Format Defined and Explained

September 28, 2020by Brian Hurlburt0

By Tim Brand, SNGA Director of Rules and Competitions

Had many events in 2020 not been cancelled or postponed due to the global pandemic, this past week would have seen the United States host Europe at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup has been postponed until next year, but now is as good of time as any to discuss one of the team formats that is played in the Ryder Cup, Four-Ball.

The Four-Ball format has its very own Rule in the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf. Rule 23 covers Four-Ball and rules that are specific to this format. What is Four-Ball? The Rule book states:

Four-Ball is a form of play (either in match play or stroke play) involving partners where:

  • Two partners compete together as a side, with each player playing his or her own ball, and
  • A side’s score for a hole is the lower score of the two partners on that hole.

Below are some common questions that players typically have when it comes to a Four-Ball competition. Hopefully, this will help clarify some potential rules situations the next time you grab a partner and compete in a Four-Ball event or a friendly game with your friends.

Q: Can I help my partner read his/her putt and give them advice?

A: Yes. In forms of play involving partners, a player may give advice to his or her partner or the partner’s caddie and may ask the partner or partner’s caddie for advice.

Q: Is there a specific order we must play in?

A: No, partners may play in the order that they consider to be best. Keeping in mind that Rule 23.6/2 states that partners must not unreasonably delay play when playing in an advantageous order. Basically, if it is one of your turns to play, either player can elect to play first as long as you are not delaying play to do so.

Q: When we fill out our scorecard, can we just put the team score on one line and turn it in?

A: No. This is especially important to remember in Four-Ball. Rule 23.2b(1) states that each score on the scorecard must be clearly identified as the score of the individual partner who made it; if this is not done, the side is disqualified. It is not enough to identify a score as the score of the side in general.

Q: I keep seeing the word “side” used when referring to Four-Ball. What does it mean?

A: The word “side” is a definition in the Rules of Golf. It refers to two or more partners competing as a single unit in a round in match play or stroke play. Each set of partners is a side, whether each player plays his or her own ball (Four-Ball) or the partners play one ball (Foursomes).

Q: What if for some reason my partner is running late for our tee time or cannot make it to the course at all?

A: Because a Four-Ball competition has each player playing their own golf ball, you can still go out and play by yourself and represent the side. If your partner does not make it at all then you will play the round without a partner. If your partner shows up during the round, they may start playing for the side only between play of two holes. To determine when play for a hole has started in this scenario, refer to Rule 23.4 in the Rules of Golf.

Q; How should we determine our playing handicaps when we play Four-Ball?

A: In most cases this will be determined by the committee in charge of the competition. With the rollout of the new World Handicap System, the USGA has offered up recommendations for different forms of play, including Four-Ball. Their recommendations vary slightly based on if you are playing match play or stroke play:

  • Four-Ball Match Play – 90% recommended allowance of your course handicap
  • Four-Ball Stroke Play – 85% recommended allowance of your course handicap

The GHIN Mobile App has a great feature in the Handicap Calculator section that will figure out your playing handicap for you when using a % allowance.

The next time you are headed out to the golf course to play with friends and are looking for a game to play, consider the Four-Ball format. It is fun format and easy to learn play!


Brian Hurlburt

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