Playing by the Rules: Four-Ball Matches May 12, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By Joe Foley, USGA

Make sure you know how the Rules of Golf apply to match-play situations to assist your partner in a four-ball format. (USGA/Russell Kirk)


Four-ball is one of golf’s most popular formats. It brings teamwork to a solitary game and gives us the chance to compete without letting a blow-up hole or two ruin our round – as long as our partners can back us up! In 2012, the USGA consulted with state and regional golf associations (SRGAs) and discovered that more than 150 four-ball championships were played annually in 50 states and the District of Columbia. In turn, the USGA added the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball and U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball championships to its stable of national championships, which were inaugurated in 2015 at The Olympic Club and Bandon Dunes, respectively.

Four-ball play also gives teams the chance to make tactical and strategic decisions to gain a competitive advantage. Whether you are watching the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., or the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball at Streamsong (Fla.) Resort; or preparing for your own four-ball match, make sure you and your partner know how the Rules of Golf can create a unique experience for players.

The following tips can be beneficial in four-ball play.

1)     Be Careful!

  • Avoid situations that you take for granted in individual play. For example, after you finish a hole in individual stroke play or match play, you are generally permitted to practice on the putting green you just finished. But if your partner has not holed out or had a stroke conceded, that would be considered practice during play of the hole, which is a breach of  Rule 7-2 (see Decision 7-2/1).
  • Know when – and how – you can help your partner. If your partner asks for help with a putt, feel free to point out a line but do not touch the putting green ( Rule 8-2b). It’s also OK to help your partner line up before he or she makes a stroke, but it’s important to take two or three big steps away from the extension of the line of play behind the ball. Otherwise, your partner will incur a penalty because you positioned yourself behind the ball during the stroke ( Rule 14-2b). Also, in stroke play, agreeing to leave your ball on the putting green to assist your partner is a violation of Rule 22-1, which would result in disqualification of your side.

2)     Work With Your Partner

  • Know your roles. Four-ball play requires players to think – and act -- as teammates, especially when interacting with each other and their opponents. Who will ensure that the marker has recorded the scores properly? Who will sign the score card at the end of the round? Who will be the side’s spokesperson, who concedes putts or who questions a potentially contentious situation, such as a Rules infraction?
  • Keep an eye on your partner. You certainly are not required to check your partner’s golf bag before the round, but Rule 4 and Rule 30 can be fairly penal for any equipment violations. For example, if, on the third hole, your partner realizes he or she has carried more than 14 clubs for the first two holes, an adjustment penalty would apply to your side, not just your partner.

3)     Make the Tough Calls

  • Who’s on first? Some of the fun in four-ball play comes from thoughtfully navigating your way around the golf course with a partner by your side. The small, but important, decisions, such as who will play first ( Rule 30-3b), can ultimately determine whether you post a low score or win a hole, so it is important to keep an even keel during a match to avoid any possible infraction.  
  • What’s my line? It takes time for partners to develop the confidence and trust in each other to exchange advice, which is permitted under Rule 8-1. It also takes confidence to make some decisions that, while within the Rules, also can be interpreted as gamesmanship. For example, if a player has an 18-foot putt for birdie and tells their partner to attempt a 10-foot putt for par so he or she can get assistance from watching the putt,  Decision 2-4/6 allows the opposing team to concede the 10-footer to prevent the first player from getting the read on the putt. It could create hard feelings, but it is part of the game and could help secure a victory. 


Be sure to observe some of these nuances during the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball and U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball championships later this month. If you cannot attend in person, tune in for live coverage on Fox Sports 1, beginning at 3 p.m. EDT on May 24.

Joe Foley is the manager of Rules outreach and programming with the USGA. Contact him at