How to Play the Better Ball Format

Two men making notes on golf score cards
Photo and Co/The Image Bank/Getty Images

"Better ball" is a name for a golf competition format in which two golfers play as a team, but each playing his or her own ball throughout. On each hole, the two golfers on a team compare scores. The lower of the two scores - the better ball - counts as the team's score.

Better ball can be played as stroke play or as match play. It is also known by other names, including 2-Person Best Ball and Four Ball (or "fourball," which this format is commonly called when it is played as match play, such as in the Ryder Cup.)

Stroke-Play Better Ball

Better ball can be played as stroke play either by a group of four golfers pairing off into 2-vs.-2 sides for a friendly round of wagering, or for a tournament. In our example, Player A and Player B make up a team:

  • On the first hole, A scores 6 and B scores 5. B's 5 is the team score on Hole 1.
  • On the second hole, A scores 4 and B scores 6. A's 4 is team score on Hole 2.
  • So the team's aggregate score after two holes is 9.

And so on, counting the better of two teammates' scores on each hole as the team score. Add up the strokes at the end of the round for your side's better ball score.

Handicaps

The USGA covers handicap allowances for better ball stroke play in Section 9-4b(ii) of the USGA Handicap Manual. And, the USGA says, the handicap allowance is 90-percent of course handicap for men; 95-percent of course handicap for women.

You can play stroke play better ball as gross or net at the group's choice, depending on how close everyone is in ability. In a tournament setting, net scoring is common to account for different levels of playing ability across the field (unless it's a higher-level tournament comprised of low-handicappers or scratch golfers).

Match-Play Better Ball

When better ball is played as match play it is more commonly called fourball. And fourball is one of the formats used in the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Solheim Cup and other prominent international golf matches.

To play better ball match play, two golfers - we'll call them A and B - partner against two others, C and D.

  • On the first hole A scores 4 and B 5. The A/B team's score is, therefore, 4.
  • C scores 6 and D scores 5. the C/D team's score is, therefore, 5.
  • So A/B wins the first hole against C/D, 4 to 5, going 1-up.

And so on, until one side clinches victory in the match.

Handicaps for better ball match play

 Handicap allowances for better ball match play are covered in the USGA Handicap Manual in Section 9-4a(iii). Here is what the USGA says to do if playing better ball match play using handicaps:

"Allowance: The Course Handicap of all four players is reduced by the Course Handicap of the player with the lowest handicap, who then plays from scratch. Each of the three other players is allowed 100 percent of the difference."

What's the Difference Between Better Ball and Best Ball?

In terms of stroke play, the difference is really just grammatical. When comparing two objects - or, in our case, two golf scores - the appropriate superlative is "better." But when comparing three or more things, "best" applies. So a tournament called Better Ball implies 2-person teams; one called Best Ball implies 3- or 4-person teams.

In match play, the difference is that 3- or 4-person teams almost never play match play against other 3- or 4-person teams. That would require 6-somes or 8-somes on each hole, after all. Better Ball can be either stroke play or match play; Best Ball is almost always going to be stroke play.

  • Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal shaking hands during a 1989 Ryder Cup four ball match

    How to Play a Four Ball Golf Match

  • Miguel Angel Jimenez of Team Europe celebrates after holing his putt on the 18th green against Nicholas Fung of Team Asia during singles match play at the 2014 EurAsia Cup

    5 Most Common Formats for Match Play Golf

  • Two male golfers looking and pointing direction

    Here's How the 2-Person Best Ball Golf Format Works

  • A man and a woman leaving a green after playing golf together

    How to Play the Chapman System Golf Format

  • Team of four golfers

    How to Play a Best Ball Golf Tournament

  • Charley Hull of the European Team celebrates with her partner Suzann Pettersen.

    How to Play the Alternate Shot Format in Golf

  • Smart, mature golfer swinging

    Here's How You Play a 4BBB Golf Tournament

  • Foursomes partners Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk

    Here's How to Play the Foursomes Format in Golf

  • Golf ball sitting on the short grass

    What Are the Most Popular Golf Tournament Formats?

  • Four golfers putting on a green by a water hazard

    How to Play a 4 Man Team 1-2-3 Best Ball Golf Tournament

  • Pinehurst Resort Club signage

    What Is the Modified Pinehurst Golf Tournament Format?

  • 4 men posing for a pre-tournament group photo

    Golf Betting Games and Tournament Formats Explained

  • The clubhouse of the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina

    How to Play a Pinehurst Tournament (or Pinehurst System) in Golf

  • Yellow golf ball teed up for golfer

    Are Ya Yella? Don't Be: Here's How to Play a Yellow Ball Tournament

  • Two golfers on the tee waiting to hit drives

    How to Play the 2-Man Scramble Golf Format

  • Do You Know How to Play an Ambrose Competition in Golf?