How to Play Alternate Shot

How This Golf Format Works, Plus Rules and Handicaps

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

 David Cannon/Getty Images

"Alternate shot" is a golf competition format in which two golfers play as partners, playing only one golf ball, taking turns playing the strokes. In other words, the two golfers alternate taking shots.

Alternate shot is commonly known as foursomes and can be played as stroke play or match play. The term "foursomes" can be used to mean any form of alternate shot. When you see a format called "foursomes" it often implies the format is match play alternate shot.

The alternate shot format is used in the Ryder Cup and other international team tournaments (Presidents Cup, Solheim Cup and others) under the foursomes name.

Example of Alternate Shot Play

Players A and B partner with one another on an alternate shot team, or side. They decide among themselves who tees off first on the first hole. Let's say they decide on Player A to hit the opening tee ball. So on the first hole, A hits the tee shot. They walk to the ball, and Player B hits the second shot. The third stroke is played by Player A. Then Player B hits the fourth. They alternate hitting shots until the ball is in the hole.

They also alternate hitting tee shots, so since in our example, Player A hit the drive on the first hole, on the second hole Player B tees off, and so on throughout the round.

Who Tees Off First on No. 1?

That's up to the partners. But it's the biggest tactical decision partners in alternate shot have to make. The golfer who tees off on No. 1 is also going to tee off on Nos. 3, 5, 7 and so on - all the odd-numbered holes.

The golfer who tees off on No. 2 will also tee off on Nos. 4, 6 and so on - all the even-numbered holes.

So check the scorecard. Do the par-5s and tough driving holes fall disproportionately on the even-numbered holes? Or the odd? Is one partner clearly a better driver of the golf ball than the other? You want that golfer best-matched to the longer, tougher driving holes.

Likewise, if one partner is clearly a better short- and mid-iron player than the other, take into account on which holes (odd or even) the par-3 holes mostly fall. Or simply make sure a poor driver doesn't get stuck with most of the tougher driving holes.

Alternate Shot in the Rules of Golf

Alternate shot is addressed in the Official Rules of Golf under Rule 29 (the rulebook always refers to the format as "foursome").

  • Rule 29-1 says that penalty strokes do not affect the order of play in alternate shot.
  • Rule 29-2 says that in match play, the partners on a side lose the hole if they play out of order.
  • And Rule 29-3 says that in stroke play, playing out of order results in the cancellation of the stroke and a penalty of two strokes, with the golfers required to replay the stroke. Failure to correct the error results in disqualification.

See Rule 29 for the full text.

Handicaps in Alternate Shot

Section 9-4 of USGA Handicap Manual covers handicap allowances for handicap competitions, including for alternate shot.

In match play, the four golfers involved in the match determine their course handicaps. The partners on each side combine those course handicaps. The higher-handicapped side gets 50-percent of the lower handicapped side's total course handicap, and the lower handicapped side plays off scratch.

The USGA provides this example with numbers:

"Side A-B with a combined Course Handicap of 15 competes against side C-D with a combined Course Handicap of 36. The higher handicapped side, C-D, receives 11 strokes (36 - 15 = 21 x 50% = 10.5 rounded to 11). Strokes are taken as assigned on the players' respective stroke allocation table."

See Section 9-4a(vii) for more on handicapping alternate shot match play.

In stroke play, an alternate-shot side combines its two players' course handicaps and divides by two.

The USGA provides this example with numbers:

"On side A-B, Player A has a Course Handicap of 5 and Player B has a Course Handicap of 12. Side AB's combined Course Handicap is 17. Side A-B will receive 9 strokes (17 x 50% = 8.5, rounded to 9)."

See Section 9-4b(vi) for more on handicapping alternate shot stroke play.

Other names or variations: Foursomes, Scotch Foursomes, Scotch Doubles, Odds and Evens