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The Loop

How four-ball went from belittled competition to integral Ryder Cup format

September 27, 2016

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We take for granted that the Ryder Cup will include three formats: Singles, foursomes (alternate shot) and four-ball (what we call “better ball” or “best ball”).

But that particular combination was decades in the making. And the debates that created it will amuse you. Today’s arguments about the future of our game have nothing on the ones that finally settled the score.

Samuel Ryder, the English seed merchant and golf fanatic -- he was buried with his 5-iron -- likely borrowed the Cup’s original format of singles and foursomes from earlier events, more than likely the Lesley Cup, a competition played from 1905 by some of the best players on this side of the Atlantic. It endures today, among the golf associations of Metropolitan New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Quebec. Lesley Cuppers over the years have included many US amateur champions and presidents of the USGA. They will tell you that their competition inspired not only the Ryder Cup but also the Walker Cup.

That’s hard to prove, but the Ryder Cup’s original format of singles and foursomes is exactly the format used by the older competition from 1907 till today. The Ryder Cup added four-ball decades later.

The Lesley Cup also tried four-ball, in fact included it with singles in its first two annual competitions, in 1905 and 1906. But it quickly changed its afternoon play to foursomes, then considered a more legitimate form of golf.

For most old-schoolers (and Old-Worlders) four-ball garnered about as much respect back then as a scramble would today. It was considered a mostly American game designed to get in as many shots as possible. It was seen as downright “amoral” in that it allowed a golfer to escape the consequences of his own play by relying on his partner. Listen to Open Champion Harold Hilton on the emergence of four-ball on his side of the Atlantic:

“It is the predilection for four-ball play which is in a goodly degree responsible for the decadence of amateur golf in Great Britain.”

Oh my.


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American architect Max Behr spent several thousand words in Golf Illustrated back then to condemn it just as vociferously:

“Not only does [four-ball] bring with it a vacillating responsibility to the result, but with its destruction of a real contest a weakening of the character and spirit of the game; for the minute responsibility becomes inconstant it becomes degrading.” This, he argued, “is always a hindrance to the best in us, which means the cultivation and improvement of our play. Our strokes must undergo this test again and again before any semblance of permanent ability can result.”

New York’s John Montgomery Ward, quoted in William Quirin’s book on the Lesley Cup, thought it downright humiliating at times for the player who is “off his game.” His words will take you back to, oh, last weekend:

“He flounders along as best he can, unconsciously ignored or politely tolerated by his partner. His sense of weakness and consequent humiliation so oppressive that he fails to render any help even when the opportunity is offered, and he concludes the unhappy round knowing that he has figured at at all in the result…..”

But the defenders of four-ball play were also vociferous. Here’s the great Walter Travis:

Four-ball “is better golf in every way…It is more sociable, less exacting, and more enjoyable. Golf consists of playing your own ball from tee to hole, which is possible at the four-ball style. The other is a hybrid.”

New Jersey’s Leighton Calkins, another defender of four-ball, described alternate shot the way most Americans might today, as playing “one-half of the game and one-half of the time.”

Ultimately there was no holding what we call “best ball” back and it became popular on both sides of the Atlantic. At the bequest of the players, says Bob Denney of the PGA of America, it was added to the Ryder Cup in 1963, extending the Matches to a third day but allowing players more opportunities to compete. (Until then, some played only once). It also increased the number of available points from 24 to 32.

Seven years after “The Match” -- the bestseller-inspiring four-ball that pitted Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson against Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward at Cypress Point -- the U.S. retained the Ryder Cup at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The Americans, led by playing captain Arnold Palmer, won 23-9, dominating four-ball, 6-2.

At which point Max Behr, were he alive, might have retracted his long-ago verdict on the subject:

“Let us remember that it is these social qualities and not its merits as a contest that gives [four-ball] a license to exist.”