The Difference Between Fourball and Foursomes In Golf

The first two days of a Ryder Cup match is fourballs and foursomes matches. But what is the key difference between these formats?

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas fist bump at the Ryder Cup
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Both formats involve teams of two players, but the main difference between fourballs and foursomes is in the number of balls being played. In foursomes, team-mates share a ball; in fourballs, each of the four players involved plays their own own ball.

Foursomes is also known as Alternate Shot. In this format a team of two plays one ball, with one of the players teeing off on the odd-numbered holes, and the other doing so on the even-numbered ones. Throughout each hole the team-mates play alternate shots.

Fourballs is also known as Fourball Better Ball. Both the players on a side play their own ball, and the better nett score of the pair on a the hole counts as the team score for that hole.

The fourballs format does not require both players in a team to hole out, as only one score will be counted. (Indeed, technically, it does not even require that both members of a team play a hole, although such a scenario is only likely if a player gets injured during the round or turns up late for the start of it.)

Both formats can be used in strokeplay or matchplay.

In both formats one player can act for the team. In fourballs this means a team-mate can mark his partner’s ball, or lift and clean, or drop it under penalty. (If these are done incorrectly, it is the player whose ball it is who incurs any penalty not the player who performed the action.)

Similarly a player and his caddie may also help the other player in the same way that the player's own caddie would be allowed to do.

In fourballs, partners may also play in whichever order the team elects when is one of their members’ turn to play.

Thus if Andrew and Benji are a fourball team, and it would normally be Benji’s turn to play as his ball is the furthest from the hole, the team can chose that Andrew plays before Benji, if they so wish.

In foursomes a team's handicap is 50% of the aggregated course handicaps of the team-mates.

In fourballs each player gets 90% of their course handicap. But that aspect the Ryder Cup players don’t have to worry about.

Foursomes vs fourballs - what you need to know

  • Foursomes: One ball, alternate shot
  • Foursomes: One player tees off odd-numbered holes, one goes off even-numbered holes
  • Foursomes: 50% of combined handicap
  • Foursomes: Quicker format as only two balls in play
  • Fourballs: Each player plays their own ball
  • Fourballs: Each player gets 90% handicap
Roderick Easdale

Contributing Writer Golf courses and travel are Roderick’s particular interests and he was contributing editor for the first few years of the Golf Monthly Travel Supplement. He writes travel articles and general features for the magazine, travel supplement and website. He also compiles the magazine's crossword. He is a member of Trevose Golf & Country Club and has played golf in around two dozen countries. Cricket is his other main sporting love. He is the author of five books, four of which are still in print: The Novel Life of PG Wodehouse; The Don: Beyond Boundaries; Wally Hammond: Gentleman & Player and England’s Greatest Post-War All Rounder.