Solheim Cup: What Are Four Ball, Foursomes and Match Play?

This is the weekend of the Solheim Cup, so here’s a quick primer on Solheim Cup Match Play:

Like the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup consists of Four Ball, Foursomes and Singles matches.  There are four Four Ball and four Foursomes each of the first two days. On the third day—Sunday—the Solheim Cup consists of twelve singles matches.

Foursomes consist of two teams of two, and only one ball per team. It’s sometimes also known as “Alternate Shot.” Players alternate shots and alternate on tee shots. As in any match play game, the team with the lowest score on each hole wins that hole for the team.

A “Four Ball” match sometimes also is known as “best ball.” Like foursomes, four ball is played in teams of two. In this format, each team member plays her own ball throughout the hole. Four players; four balls. Then, at the end of each hole, the team’s low score is counted to determine who wins the hole.

There is a great deal of strategy involved in playing these events—particularly for the coach, or captain. As a golf coach, I was faced with a fundamental dilemma whenever my team had to compete in a match play team event: do you combine players with similar, or contrasting skills?

In a foursomes, the first instinct is to combine players with dissimilar, but complementary skills.  You might, for example, combine a long hitter with a short game specialist. Taking a look at the course, a coach then can identify the hole that confers the biggest advantage to the long hitter and assign her to tee off on that hole. This then determines who tees off on all the others, since tee shots are alternated between team mates.

Teaming players with different skills also can help to minimize the damage on any one hole. If a short hitter tees off, then the longer hitter can hit a higher numbered iron into the green, where, presumably, the short game player can make a good putt.

The problem with this, however, is that it takes a player out of her usual game. If the bomber is used to taking wedges into a green, she will be uncomfortable hitting a longer iron after a wedge-and-putter player’s tee shot. So, the other approach to foursomes is to combine players with similar styles. This ensures that players generally are hitting shots that are familiar.

On the course in foursomes, team mates must be constantly aware of the other’s abilities. Each must ensure that her shot puts the other in a position that plays to their strengths. It’s not simply a matter of hitting the best shot that she can.

For example, Michelle Wie might be able to reach a par 5 in two. In doing so, however, the risk is that the ball ends up in a greenside bunker. If her partner is a sand wizard, that might be an acceptable risk; if not, she should lay up to her partner’s best distance.

Four Ball is a somewhat easier game on the coach. There, I usually combined players with different skill sets, on the theory that each hole would play to at least one of their strengths or weaknesses.

Another way of pairing players is by style. It’s often advantageous to pair a gambler with a cautious player. One can go for birdies, while the other plays for par.

On the course in a four ball match, the partners need to keep a good eye on how the other is doing. If player A has hit a ball to a safe spot, her partner might be able to attempt a riskier shot. If the risk fails to produce reward, the other player at least has a good chance. I like this format because played well, it encourages a gambling style of play.

Match Play in general also deserves an explanation.

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