Alternate Shot Golf Format Explained

The alternate shot golf format, or foursomes, is relatively straightforward from a Rules perspective but perhaps a little harder to play as we explain...

Alternate Shot Golf Format Explained
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

The alternate shot golf format, or foursomes, is relatively straightforward from a Rules perspective but perhaps a little harder to play, as we explain...

Alternate Shot Golf Format Explained

‘Alternate shot format’ is the commonly used American name for what is known as foursomes on the other side of the Atlantic.

In some ways, it is a better name because it does exactly what it says on the tin. It tells you pretty much all you really need to know about the format.

At most golf clubs alternate shot is much rarer than fourball, which is undoubtedly a more forgiving form of pairs golf.

It tends to prevail at the more traditional golf clubs where two-ball play is still preferred. Royal West Norfolk in Brancaster, for example, even quotes a much-reduced green fee for those playing alternate shot.

In the alternate shot golf format, the two of you don’t get to play your own ball. Rather you share a ball throughout taking shots alternately on each hole. One player hits the tee shots on the odd-numbered holes, the other on the even.

alternate shot golf format

Partners tee off on alternate holes then take alternate shots until they hole out (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s important to remember this point. Those new to the format can sometimes think that you alternate fully, such that whoever holes out on the previous green doesn’t hit the next tee shot.

This is not the case. The alternating stops at the end of each hole and restarts on the next hole. The player who didn’t tee off on the previous hole hits the next tee shot.

Playing a provisional ball or another ball

What happens if a shot doesn't go to plan and you need to either play a provisional ball or another ball? Whoever didn’t hit the original shot plays again from wherever the last shot was played.

As Rule 22, which covers the format, says: “Any penalty shots do not change which of you and or your partner must play the next stroke.”

Strategy and tactics

Strategy and tactics, of course, come into play. In alternate shot golf this perhaps really starts with the selection of your partner!

In the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup, captains will often select different pairings for alternate shot and fourball.

Ryder Cup captains often choose different pairings for fourball and alternate shot (Photo: Getty Images)

With only one ball in play, alternate shot is less forgiving. If you play a bad shot, your partner will have to deal with the consequences. If you’re playing badly overall, it will be difficult for your pair to do well however well your partner plays.

In fourball, however, you could play terribly, with your ball rarely counting. Yet if your partner plays a blinder you could still triumph.

You may also want to think about how the holes fall on a particular course. If most of the par 3s fall on the odd-numbered holes, the better iron player may want to take the odds.

Similarly, if the longer par 4s fall on the evens, the longer hitter may want to take the evens.

We’ve even heard tales – particularly in mixed foursomes – of players choosing to take an air shot where the carry is too long or risky. Yes, this counts as a stroke. But it might be preferable to potentially losing a ball or having to take a penalty drop.

One unwritten rule of the alternate shot golf format is to never say sorry! No-one plays a bad shot on purpose and we're all human. Constantly apologising for mistakes is unlikely to help the team cause, especially at handicap level where mistakes might be frequent from both players.

alternate shot golf format

Better to work as a team than constantly apologising in alternate shot format (Photo: Getty Images)

Finally,  some of the extra detail about Rule 22 that you'll find in the full Rules but not the Player's Edition…

Rule 22.2

Because partners compete as one side, either player can carry out actions such as marking, lifting, replacing, dropping or placing their ball as required or permitted under the Rules.

Either partner can mark, lift, replace, drop or place your ball (Photo: Kenny Smith)

Partners may give and receive advice from each other, and only one signature is required to certify the scorecard.

alternate shot golf format

You can help each out as alternate shot partners (Photo: Kenny Smith)

Rule 22.3

If partners play strokes in the wrong order, the general penalty applies. This is loss of hole in matchplay or two strokes in strokeplay.

In strokeplay, the error must also be corrected by the right partner making a stroke from where the error first occurred. If they don’t do this before teeing off on the next hole (or before signing the scorecard on the last hole) they will be disqualified.

Any stroke(s) made after first playing in the wrong order until the mistake is realised do not count in the score for that hole.

Rule 22.5

Alternate shot partners may share clubs as long as the total number of clubs they have together does not exceed 14.

Jeremy Ellwood
Contributing Editor

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly. He is an expert on the Rules of Golf having qualified through an R&A course to become a golf referee. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 91 of the Next 100, making him well-qualified when it comes to assessing and comparing our premier golf courses. He has now played 1,000 golf courses worldwide in 35 countries, from the humblest of nine-holers in the Scottish Highlands to the very grandest of international golf resorts. He reached the 1,000 mark on his 60th birthday in October 2023 on Vale do Lobo's Ocean course. Put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content.

Jezz can be contacted via Twitter - @JezzEllwoodGolf

Jeremy is currently playing...

Driver: Ping G425 LST 10.5˚ (draw setting), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 55 S shaft

3 wood: Ping G425 Max 15˚ (set to flat +1), Mitsubishi Tensei AV Orange 65 S shaft

Hybrid: Ping G425 17˚, Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 80 S shaft

Irons 3-PW: Ping i525, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Wedges: Ping Glide 4.0 50˚ and 54˚, 12˚ bounce, True Temper Dynamic Gold 105 R300 shafts

Putter: Ping Fetch 2021 model, 33in shaft (set flat 2)

Ball: Varies but mostly now TaylorMade Tour Response