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The elusive secrets to foursomes, the Ryder Cup's quirkiest match

PARIS – To this day, there still are traditional clubs across the United Kingdom that, before a certain hour, permit only foursomes play (two players alternating shots until a ball is holed) on the golf course.

For Americans? Well, foursomes pretty much remains a foreign game, in more than one sense. With four foursomes matches on tap in each of the Ryder Cup’s first two days, it’s also a format that becomes very important every other year in determining a champion.

Beginning Friday at Le Golf National, the U.S. will be trying to win a Ryder Cup in Europe for the first time since 1993. The last time the U.S. showed up over here, four years ago in Scotland, the Americans need look no farther than one format that led to the team’s lopsided demise: foursomes play.

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Europe drummed the U.S. by a margin of 6-0-2 in the two sessions at Scotland’s Gleneagles, and went on to a 17-11 triumph. The good part about Gleneagles from a U.S. perspective is that it marked a line-in-the-sand moment. The U.S. side developed a task force of players and officials to get all Ryder Cup constituents to work more closely together. But at the time, Gleneagles marked a tough loss that only continued Europe’s maddening modern-day domination. With that victory in '14, Europe had won seven of eight Ryder Cups.

Strange to think that the best players in the world get together every couple of years and compete in a format that just isn’t played very frequently. It's like going onstage at Karaoke night and being told you have to share the microphone. The U.S. playing foursomes matches against other countries dates at least to 1913, when, just down the road from Le Golf near Versailles, a team of four American pros chosen by the U.S. Golf Association took on a French team at Le Boulie. France won, 6-0.

Some players are more familiar, and more comfortable, with foursomes than others. Ryder Cup rookie Bryson DeChambeau on Tuesday had a hard time trying to recall if alternate-shot is the Ryder Cup's foursomes or four-ball format. (In four-ball, two players from each team play their own golf balls, taking the better score.) Rickie Fowler loves the alternate-shot format, preferring it to playing four-ball. But two years ago at Hazeltine, he joked, “If I go play golf, I want to play the whole course. I don’t want to skip half the shots.”

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Golfers are creatures of habit, accustomed to a certain cadence and rhythm in their rounds. Foursomes breaks that routine, with a player only hitting half of the shots in a round. On a certain day, one player might not face a crucial putt until late in the match, and then be asked to step up and make a 10-footer with everything on the line. For American players, it can take time to warm to the format.

In foursomes, the golf ball itself can become an issue, though not to the extent it once did. Tiger Woods, who played in his first Ryder Cup in 1997, recalled that a two-man team had to decide on a single model golf ball and play with it through the entire match. Woods even played out a typical conversation that might take place before this rule was adjusted.

“Before, it was just, Ok, well, you played that ball, (and) you played that ball, you guys are going out together,” Woods said. “Yeah, but we never see each other throughout the year … 

"But you guys play the same ball. Go ahead and go.” 

In 2006, the one-ball rule was relaxed in Ryder Cup foursomes. Instead of a two-man team being required to use the same make and model of golf ball for the entire match, at the home captain's discretion, teams have been allowed to switch balls on every tee. Strategy-wise, if the individuals use different golf balls, a decision usually is made to match up the player who will be hitting the team's iron shot into the green with the ball he regularly plays. Distance control is premium. 

“I play a very ‘spinny’ ball,” said Woods (he plays a Bridgestone Tour B XS), “whereas others play a ball that doesn’t spin as much. So there are some adjustments to be made. (Today) we have so many damned different devices that can check golf balls and how they fly that you can figure out how the golf ball is flying, what are the distances, and all these different things, and make those adjustments.”

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Bubba Watson and DeChambeau were looking at various golf ball readings during their practice round at Le Golf on Wednesday. Phil Mickelson said in the past that a significant part of the reason he and Woods lost two matches on opening day of the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills was that they played two completely different balls and had not had time to adequately prepare. 

Ryder Cup matches dating to 1927 traditionally began with foursomes matches, with a handful of exceptions. In 1979 at The Greenbrier, U.S. Captain Billy Casper opened with four-balls, scheduling foursomes for the second session. Spain’s Seve Ballesteros wanted four-balls as the opening session at Valderrama in Spain when he was captain in 1997. Europe won, and pretty much has followed that formula for five home Ryder Cups since Spain. In case you're wondering, the U.S., for all of its struggles at Gleneagles, did bounce back nicely at Hazeltine two years ago. On Friday morning, with Arnold Palmer's old golf bag sitting on the tee at the opening of the 41st Ryder Cup, the U.S. went out and swept all four foursomes matches of the opening session. Arnie would have given that a big thumbs up.

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Moreso than in four-ball play, where golfers play their own ball and individual game much as they do every other day, the foursomes presents a different type of challenge. Players must be comfortable with one another. Saying “Sorry” after a bad shot never is a good option. Players who hit poor shots have to move on fast. Foursomes move swiftly.

“Foursomes is a tough game,” said European Captain Thomas Bjorn. “In foursomes, it's more the grinders. It's more the people that work hard on the golf course and don't give too many things away and grind it out. Those are the guys that make great foursomes players.”

Come Friday afternoon in France, he'll need four solid teams of them.