How to Play a 'Best Ball' Golf Tournament

Plus another format called 'best ball' included in the Rules of Golf

Team of four golfers
A best ball tournament typically involves four golfers on a team. Tom Merson/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Best Ball is a golf tournament format in which the multiple golfers who make up a team compare their scores on each hole, and the one lowest score among them - the "best ball" among them - counts as the team score.

Best ball teams, the vast majority of the time, consist of four golfers, but best ball can also be played by 3-person teams. A 2-person best ball is also possible, but is more commonly called better ball.

Along with the scramble, best ball is one of the most popular golf tournament formats. There's also another format called best-ball that plays very different and is mentioned at the bottom of this article.

Example of Best Ball Scoring

Using 4-person teams in our example, here's how a best ball works:

  • Each team in the tournament consists of four golfers.
  • On each hole, all four members of the team tee off, each walks to their own golf ball and plays their second stroke; each walks to their own golf ball and plays their third stroke; and so on, until the ball is holed. In other words, each member of a best ball team is just playing normal golf - hitting their own golf ball, trying to make his or her best score possible on each hole.
  • When all four team members have finished the hole, they compare scores.
  • The lowest score among the four team members counts as the team score for that hole.

That's best ball. Really quite simple. If the four scores on Hole 1 are 4, 4, 6 and 5, the team score is 4. On Hole 2, if the team members score 5, 4, 7 and 3, the team score is 3. And so on. Do that for 18 holes and add up the score for the team's total.

If a tournament or competition is called best ball, it is going to be stroke play. In theory, you could play a match play best ball, but best-ball match play with more than 2-person teams would be very difficult. (Lots of holes would be halved and it would take a long time to play, since matches would include six - 3 vs. 3 - or eight - 4 vs. 4 - golfers). But a 2-person best ball match play competition is quite common, just under the name of Four Ball. (Four ball is one of the formats included in many of the professional national-team tournaments, such as the Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup. Although you can think of four ball as a 2-person best ball match play format, as noted in the intro a 2-person best ball is more commonly called "better ball.")

But again, if tournament organizers announce "we're playing best ball," it's going to be stroke play (and will almost surely involve 4-person teams).

Handicap Allowances in Best Ball

By far the most common form of best ball as we've described it is best-ball-of-4; that is, best ball with 4-person teams. And it is strongly recommended to apply handicaps in best ball so that the weaker players on the team will have a chance to contribute to the team score.

Handicap allowances for Best Ball with 4-person teams are covered in Section 9-4b(iv) of the USGA Handicap Manual. Those recommended handicap allowances are these:

  • Men on a 4-person best ball team receive 80-percent of their course handicap;
  • Women on a 4-person best ball team receive 90-percent of their course handicap.

Obviously, when you play best ball using handicaps you will use the lowest net score among the golfers as the team score on each hole.

The 'Other' Best-Ball

Notice the hyphen we inserted into "best-ball" in that title? That's because there's another form of best-ball - perhaps we should call it the official form of best-ball - that is defined in and covered in the Official Rules of Golf, and the governing bodies spell this format with the hyphen.

The best ball format we described above is the one that golfers will encounter in golf association outings, corporate events, charity tournaments, club tournaments and the like.

However, the Rules of Golf includes this definition:

"Best-Ball: A match in which one player plays against the better ball of two other players or the best ball of three other players."

This best-ball is a match play competition in which one golfer is taking on a team comprised of either two golfers or three golfers - 1-vs.-2 or 1-vs.-3. This form of best-ball is addressed in Rule 30 of the Rules of Golf. This can be a fun format for a group of three or four golfers in which one of those golfers is significantly better than the other two.

Return to Golf Glossary index