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Figuring Out Foursomes

10 October, 2009

Figuring Out Foursomes The Quick, Unusual Alternate-Ball Format, Suited to Friendly Outings, Bedevils Many Pros

10th October 2009

When Greg Norman, captain of the international team at this week's Presidents Cup in San Francisco, was asked to explain his squad's poor historic record in the matches, he replied instantly: "It's foursomes. As simple as that."

Foursomes, for the uninitiated, is the oddball format of the three used at Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup competitions. (The other two are best ball, aka four-ball, and singles.) In foursomes, or alternate ball, two-man teams face off with only one ball per team. The players alternate taking swats at their ball until it is holed. They also alternate tee shots—one teammate handles the odd-numbered holes, the other the even.

The difference between zero and the average number of times an American golfer will play a foursomes match in the course of his or her lifetime is statistically insignificant. So it may seem odd that the American team so often "trounces" (to use Mr. Norman's word) the international team in foursomes at the Presidents Cup. (The Americans won the foursomes matches on Thursday, 3½ to 2½. Five more are scheduled Saturday morning.) One reason is that foursomes are no more popular overseas, except in the British Isles, than they are the U.S. Another is that the American stars gain experience at foursomes in alternate years at the Ryder Cup and the internationals do not.

But why, then, have the U.S. teams held their own in foursomes in recent years at the Ryder Cup and dominated at the amateur Walker Cup matches against players strictly from Great Britain and Ireland—the very hotbed of foursomes? Partly, no doubt, it's because the best players prevail no matter what the format, and for the top international competitions everyone has plenty of time to prepare. Buddy Marucci, captain of the U.S. Walker Cup team that won six of eight foursomes matches last month in Pennsylvania, told me the team spent 70% to 80% of its practice time getting comfortable with alternate-ball.

"It's the most difficult format there is because it throws off your rhythm. A player can sometimes go 20 to 25 minutes without hitting a shot, or three or four holes without attempting a putt," he said. The pressure is magnified by knowing that your partner will have to clean up whatever mess you make, and that you will be on the spot to convert his brilliant approach shot for birdie.

The more I looked into the matter this week, however, the more I became convinced that the foursomes expertise supposedly possessed by top-caliber players from the British Isles doesn't really amount to much. That's because, except at a few private clubs like Muirfield in Scotland and Royal St. George's and Rye in England, which specialize in foursomes play, the format is familiar but not all that common. It's used mostly as a change of pace, something different, about as often as scramble and Stableford formats are used in the U.S. Moreover, one of the chief attractions of foursomes play is that it moves at lightning speed, usually requiring only 2½ hours or so to complete because the two golfers not hitting walk ahead so as to be ready to smack their shots as quickly as possible. It's like leap frog, and usually quite jolly. Foursomes matches are often preceded and/or followed by substantial liquid refreshment.

Take Muirfield, the legendary private club in Gullane, Scotland, whose proper name is the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. More than 90% of play at Muirfield is in the foursomes format, reckons W. David Angus, a Canadian senator from Quebec who has been an overseas member at Muirfield since 1972. "They frown on four-ball as too slow," he said. "Foursomes are generally a more social way of playing, very friendly and very spirited. The matches are seen as a way to get out for some sport for a couple of hours, to get some fresh air. We're always very eager to get back to the clubhouse for lunch."

Mr. Angus, who played golf for Princeton in the 1950s, last visited Muirfield two weekends ago, when in two days he played four brisk, 18-hole matches, carrying his own bag (with a partial set of clubs), punctuated by lively lunches (jacket and tie required) and a black-tie dinner Saturday night. The highlight of club life at Muirfield, he said, are the so-called match dinners every few months. At these members formally rise to propose specific 36-hole matches for the following days, which the club captain judges to be either fair or unfair. When the former, the captain then declares, "The book is open," so that other members can wager on the outcomes. It's an unwritten rule that after the morning match the losers buy lunch for the winners, who are more or less obliged to drink whatever libations are presented, thus evening up the odds for afternoon play.

Most clubs in the U.K. stage foursomes matches on special occasions. A typical devoted golfer may play four to six alternate-ball rounds a year, estimated Gordon Dalgleish, an Atlanta-based Scotsman who is co-founder and president of PerryGolf, an operator of high-end golf tours. "It's an alternative way to experience the game, although not always necessarily a rewarding one. It's hard to be continually loving of your partner when he keeps hitting the ball into the stuff," he said.

Americans don't cotton to alternate-ball play, Mr. Dalgleish suggested, because they love stats and prefer to focus on individual scores. "In Britain score isn't that important. The focus is on beating the other guys in your match," he said. The British handicap system, traditionally based on scores from monthly competitions only, reflects this bias. By contrast, Americans who keep handicaps are required to return scores from every round they play.

Still, scattered foursomes competitions take place in the U.S., such as on Bobby Jones Day at the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania and at the annual Griscom Cup, a tournament dating from 1898 staged by the women's golf associations of Philadelphia, metropolitan New York and Massachusetts. There are also a few avid foursomes advocates, such as Mark Burris, a member at two clubs with regular foursomes events. The annual Blue-Gray tournament, coming up next week at the Secession Golf Club in Buford, S.C., features one day of foursomes matches. And Mr. Burris's home club near Charleston, S.C., stages two mixed foursomes tournaments each year. "It's always great fun after the rounds to see which couples are still talking to each other," he said.

Mr. Burris likes the way the speed of play and added pressure of foursomes shakes golf up a bit. He often tries to jam a little late-afternoon alternate-ball play down the throats of his buddies on golf trips. "There's grumbling, but they usually come off the course smiling and with their love of the game renewed," he said.

By JOHN PAUL NEWPORT of the Wall Street Journal


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