If you have ever watched any Ryder Cup, Seve Trophy, Presidents Cup or Solheim Cup competition, then you have seen a four-ball match. Along with alternate-shot and singles matches, four-ball is one of the most popular formats for team competitions. 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 his own.
According the USGA’s Rules of Golf, four-ball stroke play is “a competition in which two competitors play as partners, each playing his own ball. The lower score of the partners is the score for the hole. If one partner fails to complete the play of the hole, there is no penalty.” 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.” In fact, you will sometimes hear the format referred to as “better ball.”
Scoring in a four-ball match is very simple. Four players create two teams of two, and each player plays his own ball. After each hole, each team’s players compare their scores, and the lowest score is counted as the team score. For example, one team’s players are playing a par-4 hole; Player A takes four shots and Player B takes five shots. Because Player A’s score is the better of the two, the team’s score will be 4 if they are playing stroke play. In match play, the team’s score of 4 will be compared against the other team’s best score to determine which team won the hole. In both cases, when the match is finished, the two-man team with the lower score wins.
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.
Four-ball strategy is a little different from single-player strategy. Because only one score is counted, a certain amount of gambling is not only expected, but wise. A typical strategy is for one player to “play safe” and attempt to guarantee par, while the other player “goes for it” and tries to make the lowest score possible. Players with a successful strategy are often described as “ham-and-egging it,” and stroke scores in the 50s are not unusual.
On June 28, 2009, 94 four-ball teams met at the Gunsan Country Club in South Korea to set the record for the most holes ever played in 24 hours by four-ball teams. Every team was attended by a caddie with a specially-designed scorecard, and Guinness World Records Adjudicator Ralph Hannah patrolled the course to be certain that the rules were properly followed. In the end, the teams successfully played 6,974 holes, an average of just over 74 holes per team.