Both formats involve four people playing but one is more forgiving than the other. Jeremy Ellwood sums up the difference between fourball and foursomes
Clearly, as the names suggest, four people are involved in both fourball and foursomes but in two sides or pairs. Americans in particular would generally refer to any group of four golfers as a foursome (“any chance you could make up a foursome this weekend?”), which is why ‘foursomes’ as a format is often referred to as ‘alternate shot’ across The Pond… which, of course, tells us exactly what it is.
And foursomes really is no more complicated than that. Each player in each pair hits every other shot, so if one hits the tee shot, the other plays the second shot and they then alternate on every shot until their ball is holed out. One player will hit all the tee shots on the even-numbered holes and the other on the odd-numbered holes. Should the pair have to play a provisional ball or another ball at any point, again it is whoever didn’t hit the original shot that will reload from the tee or wherever it was played from.
Fourball is usually referred to as fourball betterball, which again tells you exactly what the deal is, although, of course, it is only the two balls within your pair that are relevant to you. Both players in each pair play their own ball the whole round, but it is only the better net or gross score (depending on the competition) that actually counts for each pair.
Clearly, this is a much more forgiving format than foursomes because in foursomes, there is nowhere to hide. If you play a bad shot, your partner will have to deal with the consequences. If you’re playing badly overall, it will make it very difficult for your pair to do well however well your partner plays. In fourball, it’s very different – you could play a complete howler with your ball rarely counting for your team’s score, but if your partner has a blinder you could still emerge victorious.
Strategy and tactics
Strategy comes into play in both formats, in foursomes more typically in selecting a partner. But opinions differ as to the ideal partnership. Some say similar games help, so your clubbing will be the same and you can both discuss shots from a similar perspective; other say very different games help so if you’re not particularly long and your partner is, you can work out a good overall strategy, if, for example most of the shorter par 4s fall on the even-numbered holes. Equally, if one is a particularly strong iron player, you will probably want him or her to take as many of the par-3 tee shots as the card allows.
In fourball, strategy comes into it even more, particularly in matchplay. If you’re tackling a short par 4, you may decide that the first to hit should have a pop at the green, with the second player then having a go too if the first shot is fine, or laying up if it hasn’t worked out. Or you may decide to get the lay-up in play first allowing the second player to then cut loose. Equally, you may both decide to adapt your tactics if both your opponents hit it into trouble, and simply concentrate on keeping two balls in play.
Fourball is a more forgiving format in that you could in theory make 10 on a hole personally, yet still win it if your partner plays it well. Not every shot you both play will ultimately count, whereas in foursomes, every shot both partners play really counts. Despite this, there is an unwritten rule that the best foursomes partners never say sorry to each other, accepting that we all have our frailties and can’t be expected to deliver on every shot!
In matchplay, CONGU’s recommendations for handicap allowances are half the full difference between the aggregate handicaps of each side in foursomes, and three-quarters the difference between handicaps in fourball, taken from the lowest player.
So if, for example, Team A has handicaps of 5 & 12, and Team B 11 & 17, the allowances would be as follows…
Team A aggregate = 17, Team B aggregate = 28. The difference is 11, and half of that is 6, with 0.5 and above always rounding up. So Team A gives Team B 6 shots to be taken on holes stroke indexed 1 to 6.
The three other players individually take ¾ of the difference between their handicaps and the low man off 5. So his partner gets three-quarters of 12 – 5 = 5 shots, while the opposing team would get 5 and 9 shots respectively using the same maths.
In strokeplay, the same denominators apply, but both teams would be allocated half their combined handicap in foursomes, while all players would play off three-quarters of their individual handicaps in fourball betterball.