Ryder Cup 2021: The difference between foursomes and fourballs, tactics and possible pairings

·8 min read
Ryder Cup 2021: The difference between foursomes and fourballs, tactics and possible pairings - Getty Images
Ryder Cup 2021: The difference between foursomes and fourballs, tactics and possible pairings - Getty Images

The Ryder Cup is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world, attracting a global audience that far exceeds regular golf tournaments.

For casual golf fans tuning in to watch the biennial dust-up between Europe and USA, the format and terminology can perhaps be a little confusing and opaque.

Here, Telegraph Sport breaks down all you need to know about how a Ryder Cup works, including some of the strategies both teams will be employing in a bid to lift the famous gold trophy.

How is the Ryder Cup different from most golf tournaments?

The Ryder Cup is one of golf's few team events, meaning the 12 European and American players are trying to win points that add up to their team's overall tally.

Most PGA Tour and European Tour events are strokeplay; players play 72 holes of golf and the player with the lowest total by Sunday afternoon wins the tournament.

The Ryder Cup though, is a matchplay event. Each player's cumulative score across 18 holes does not matter, they are playing to win each hole.

For example, if a European pair or player records the lowest score on the first hole at Whistling Straits they go one up. If they do likewise on the second hole, they go two up and so forth. If both teams match each other's score the hole is halved and the score in the match stays the same.

The idea is to be leading by a bigger margin than there are holes remaining. If Europe are three up after the 16th for example, they will win the match 3&2 because they are three up with only two holes left.

What is the format and how is the Ryder Cup won?

Winning a match adds a point to the overall scoreline. There are 28 matches at the Ryder Cup - eight on Friday, eight on Saturday and 12 on Sunday - meaning there are 28 points to play for. The target therefore, is to reach 14½ points to win the Ryder Cup. The holders, Europe, will only require 14 points to retain the Ryder Cup in the event of a tie.

Golfers will play in pairs on Friday and Saturday, with four fourballs matches and four foursomes matches each day. That means in any of the first four sessions of play, USA and Europe's captain will have to leave four players on the sidelines which can be a difficult decision.

All 12 players will be involved on Sunday, facing one member of the opposition in a dozen 'singles' matches which form the Ryder Cup finale.

How do fourballs and foursomes work?

In both fourballs and foursomes, two Europeans take on two Americans. In fourballs, also known as a better-ball across the Atlantic, each of the four players plays their own ball as normal, and the player who records the lowest score wins the hole for their team. Due to the fact each team has two balls in play, it is rightly considered the more forgiving format because one stray shot does not necessarily put your team out of contention on a hole. However, with four players each playing every hole as normal, it can be quite a slow format to watch.

Jose-Maria Olazabal of Spain uses the shoulders of Seve Ballesteros - Getty Images
Jose-Maria Olazabal of Spain uses the shoulders of Seve Ballesteros - Getty Images

In foursomes, each pair only has one ball in play, meaning it is a faster format but far more penal. Players hit each shot alternately, with one player teeing off on the odd numbered holes and the other on the evens. They will have to decide before the match which player's ball they are going to use, a not insignificant choice given the top players are generally loyal to one manufacturer. With your partner responsible for where your next shot will be played from, trust and some level of camaraderie is more important in foursomes than fourballs.

What are some of the tactics involved?

Firstly, Ryder Cup captains Padraig Harrington (Europe) and Steve Stricker (USA) face some selection dilemmas.They must put players in complementary pairings based on styles of play and personality, and also decide which four players to leave out or rest in the fourballs and foursomes sessions on Friday and Saturday.

This can backfire badly, such as USA captain Hal Sutton's decision to pair rivals Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together in 2004 or Europe captain Mark James not playing rookie Andrew Coltart until Sunday at Brookline in 1999.

An interesting feature of matchplay is the ability to concede putts to your opponent. In strokeplay, players must hole out without fail, but in matchplay putts from short-range can be conceded. This may seem very sporting and good-natured, but can lead to mind games. A pair might concede two or three short putts to their opponents early on, before unexpectedly making them hole out later in the hope of unsettling them. The question of concessions can lead to bad blood in matches - just look at this bizarre incident at the Solheim Cup this year.

In fourballs, there are a few things to consider. While distance off the tee is generally considered advantageous in all forms of golf, especially at Whistling Straits which measures more than 7,500 yards, some pairings will not be dismayed if one or both of their drives are the shortest. This is because the team furthest from the hole has the honour, so it gives them a chance to apply pressure with a good approach before the next team plays further up their fairway. Europe will likely be in this position frequently.

The question of who has the 'honour' and the order shots are played is another angle of fourtballs strategy. As stated, the pairing with a ball furthest from the hole has the honour, but that player can elect for his partner who is closer to the hole to go first instead.

For example, if USA make par on a hole and Europe are facing a 20-foot birdie putt and a five-foot par putt, the player 20 feet away can ask his partner to putt first. The idea being that securing par and the half of the hole will allow the player with the birdie putt to be more aggressive with his attempt to win the hole.

Sergio Garcia of Europe celebrates winning the match on the 17th green during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup - Getty Images
Sergio Garcia of Europe celebrates winning the match on the 17th green during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup - Getty Images

Of course, players will react to their partner and opponents. On a par five for example, if your partner has found the green in two and you are right on the limit of reaching, there is little to be lost by taking it on. If however, your partner has sprayed his second into trouble, then it might pay to be more conservative and keep the hole alive with a lay-up.

In foursomes/alternate shot, each pairing must decide who takes the tee shots on the odd numbered holes and who takes the evens. This might be determined by which set of holes contains the most par fives and par threes and the respective strengths of each player. It might be a good idea to let the longest hitter take the majority of par five tee shots, or players might consider the shape of tee shot demanded by each hole and try to make sure the player with a suitable ball flight is driving where possible.

Foursomes is the tougher discipline, and it tends to be the more stable and consistent players who are preferred for this format. The golden rule of foursomes is never to say sorry to your partner after a loose shot.

What are the possible pairings?

The teams have now been finalised after Harrington and Stricker named their captain's picks. These are the players who will tee it up at Whistling Straits.


Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick, Lee Westwood, Bernd Wiesberger, Sergio Garcia (pick), Shane Lowry (pick), Ian Poulter (pick)


Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth (pick), Tony Finau (pick), Xander Schauffele (pick), Harris English (pick), Daniel Berger (pick), Scottie Scheffler (pick)

It is far easier to pick some possible European pairings than American. Sergio Garcia has dovetailed well with Luke Donald and Lee Westwood in the past, but a foursomes pairing with fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm appeals. The calm head of Westwood with the sometimes fiery Tyrrell Hatton could be a good combination while Tommy Fleetwood and Paul Casey teamed up at the Tokyo Olympics. Rory McIlroy has fared well alongside Ian Poulter this time, but Shane Lowry is another option with the pair from the island of Ireland good friends.

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas are certain to play together for USA, but it is hard to predict the others with six rookies on Stricker's team. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau are sworn enemies, while Koepka and Dustin Johnson had to be separated after the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris. The ball-striking excellence of Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele will be relied upon in foursomes.