What is the Ryder Cup format? Fourballs, foursomes and singles explained

What is the Ryder Cup format? Fourballs, foursomes and singles explained
Team Europe's Jon Rahm and Sepp Straka (left) during a practice round at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club - PA/David Davies

The Ryder Cup stands apart from professional golf’s biggest events by putting the world’s elite players in a team environment.

The United States have not lifted the Ryder Cup on European soil since 1993, and a dozen Americans will travel to Rome this September looking to change that record.

Europe suffered a bruising defeat at Whistling Straits last time out, and will need a fresh core of younger players to gel if captain Luke Donald is to lead them to victory.

In the build-up to this year’s event, players have called for the introduction of a play-off to ensure future events always have an outright winner and cannot end in ties. Read the full story here.

This is how the Ryder Cup format works.

How does matchplay work?

Golf’s four major championships and the vast majority of tournaments are strokeplay events, where the field play 72 holes and the player with the lowest cumulative score is crowned the winner.

The Ryder Cup is not strokeplay, but matchplay, meaning pairs or individuals are head-to-head. The pair or player with the lowest score on the first hole, win the hole, and thus are said to be one up. If they win the next hole they will be two up. If their opponents win the next hole it will be back to all square and so forth.

The match is won when a pair of player leads by a greater number of holes than remain (if they are three up after 16 holes, they will have won 3&2 because they are three up with only two holes remaining).

Another feature of matchplay is the players can choose to concede close-range putts to their opponents, and this can become a source of mind games.

How does the Ryder Cup scoring system work?

Europe and the US will go head-to-head in eight fourball matches, eight foursomes matches and 12 singles matches. Each match is worth one point, with tied matches worth half a point to each team. That means 14 and a half points are required to win the Ryder Cup. Should holders the US reach 14 points, they will be assured a tie and therefore would retain the Ryder Cup at worst.

On Friday and Saturday, there will be four foursomes matches in the morning and four fourball matches in the afternoon. This means in any one session each team will have eight of their 12 golfers on the course, so team captains Donald and Zach Johnson must decide who to select and who to leave out. Calculating which players should be paired together is also an important part of the captain’s job.

The 12 singles matches are on Sunday, when every golfer will play on the day the Ryder Cup is decided.

Europe Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald - What is the Ryder Cup format? Fourballs, foursomes and singles explained
Europe captain Luke Donald replaced Henrik Stenson after he was stripped of the position - Getty Images/Mike Ehrmann

What is the difference between fourballs and foursomes?

Fourballs

Two European players against two Americans. All four players play the course as normal with their own ball. The pair who record the lowest score on a hole (individual score, not aggregate) win the hole. So if three players par the first hole, but a European birdies, then Europe go one up.

This effectively means two bites of the cherry at every hole, so captains favour picking aggressive players in this format. Even if they are slightly erratic, there is the insurance of a second ball in play. That is the theory at least.

A common strategy in fourballs is for one player to dissect a hole more conservatively, keeping his ball in play so his partner can be more cavalier.

José Maria Olazábal and Seve Ballesteros at the 1991 Ryder Cup - Ryder Cup 2023: Date, venue, format and schedule
José Maria Olazábal and the late Seve Ballesteros were a legendary Ryder Cup pairing - Stephen Munday/Getty Images

Foursomes

Two European players against two Americans. However, in this format each pair have just one ball in play with shots taken alternately. It is a much quicker format but a far harder discipline. One bad shot can cost you a hole, in contrast to fourballs when you have your partner’s ball to rely on.

For this reason, captains tend to favour their most consistent and accurate ball-strikers who can keep the ball in play. Par can be a good score in foursomes, while fourballs is all about making birdies.

Players tee off on alternate holes, so will plot their way through the course beforehand to decide which player should take the odds and which the evens. For example, you might try to get the longest driver teeing off on most of the par fives or the best iron player on most of the par threes if the course layout allows.

Singles

One European against one American in direct matchplay.


Ryder Cup should abolish ties and introduce play-off, say players

Ryder Cup players are calling for the introduction of a deciding play-off to ensure future events always have an outright winner and cannot end in ties.

In the event of a 14-14 score this weekend, the US will retain the trophy as previous winners under rules similar to an Ashes Test series in cricket.

The issue is a hot topic in Rome this week after Europe’s women retained the Solheim Cup with a 14-14 draw against the US last weekend.

Tyrrell Hatton and Max Homa suggested separately on Wednesday that players in locker rooms would welcome a rule change. “Ties leave a bad taste in my mouth,” Homa said.

After a summer that has already seen Australia retain the Ashes after a series draw, Hatton said the potential for a tie at the Ryder Cup is “not ideal”.

“I think it would be quite interesting if there was a way of putting in a play-off, if that was to happen,” the Englishman said. “I think it would be pretty exciting for fans, and it would certainly create a pretty epic atmosphere. Playing in front of home fans is always special, but I think that would add something to it.

“I think you probably have the time to do it because singles start later in the day compared to fourballs and foursomes.”

He suggested “having the tee times starting a bit earlier on Sunday” for potential solutions that could include a nine-hole play-off format.

“I think that would be a lot more exciting than just ‘that’s a tie ... such-and-such retain the Cup’,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the best thing.”

Homa agreed that a rule change could produce more drama for the biennial event. He referenced the excitement of watching the Presidents Cup in 2003, when a 17-17 tie led to Tiger Woods, then the No 1 player in the world facing Ernie Els, then No 2, in a play-off.

“I’ve never liked ties,” Homa said. “They don’t make sense to me. The whole point of any competition is to see who wins.”

Even though the US could take the trophy home with a draw, he suggested “the retaining thing” feels hollow. “I understand why they do it, but I’m not a fan of it,” he said. “You have a completely new team, for instance, at the Solheim Cup, and they tied. Someone should play a play-off. I thought one of the most exciting things we’ve had, although it still ended in a tie, was Tiger and Ernie playing at the Presidents Cup.

“That was one of the coolest memories you could have of a team event. You would crave more of that if possible ... ties leave a bad taste in my mouth.”

Other players were more diplomatic when asked for their opinion on a potential rule change. Rory McIlroy said the scoring system was “part of history and tradition”. “I was watching the Solheim Cup last week, and obviously there was huge celebrations when Europe got to 14 and retained the cup,” he said. “And I thought to myself, ‘They are celebrating a lot for a draw”, but then I go back to Medinah in 2012 and we went ballistic when we got to 14 as well.

“I think retaining it means something, and there’s certainly a historical and traditional element to it ... this competition has been around since 1927, and that’s the way they have always done it. Does that mean that’s the way they always have to do it? Probably not. But it’s nice to keep some of the tradition around the event.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.