Four-ball is one of the most popular formats for team competitions. This is the chosen format for some of the biggest team tournaments in golf, including the Ryder Cup, Seve Trophy, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup competitions. Four-ball match play is defined as a match in which two players play their better ball against the better ball of two other players. For this reason, you will also hear the format referred to as “better ball.” While the concept is simple, success at four-ball is a classic example of using strategy to make the team score better than either player could do on their own.
How to play
Playing a four-ball match is very simple. Four players create two teams of two, and each player plays their own ball. After each hole, each teams’ players compare their scores, and the lowest score is counted as the team score. For example, in a stroke play format, if one team’s players were playing a par-4 hole and Player A took four shots while Player B took five shots, then the team’s score would be 4 since it was the better of the two scores. In match play, the team’s score of 4 would be compared against the other team’s best score to determine which team won the hole. In both cases, at the end of the match, the two-person team with the lowest score would be the winner.
Four-ball strategy is a little different from single-player strategy. Because the rules permit excellent play by one teammate to negate the less than sterling play of their partner, it is considered strategically sound to pair an aggressive player with a consistent player. This strategy allows the aggressive player to take chances to score low, while the consistent player is there for a save should their partner’s aggression backfire. Players using this strategy successfully are often described as “ham-and-egging it,” and stroke scores in the 50s are not unusual.
Although most of the standard rules in the USGA’s Rules of Golf apply to four-ball match play and four-ball stroke play, there are some differences in procedure and penalties due to the team aspects. The USGA defines these differences in Rule 30 for match play and Rule 31 for stroke play.