How to Play a Three Ball Match in Golf

The Competition Format Is for a Group of Three Golfers

Three ball format has three golf balls in play on each hole
Three ball is - you won't be surprised - a golf format for groups of three. Richard Heathcote/Photolibrary/Getty Images

In a "three ball" golf match, the members of a group of three golfers compete in match play against one another, with each member of the group playing simultaneous matches against each of the other two members.

The Three Ball format is one of only a handful of formats other than singles match play and stroke play that is specifically mentioned in the Rules of Golf. It is an excellent choice for a group of three golfers out for a friendly yet competitive round of golf.

Definition of Three Ball in the Rules

Golf's governing bodies, the USGA and R&A, provide a definition of three ball in the Definitions section of the rule book:

"A form of match play where:
*Each of three players plays an individual match against the other two players at the same time, and
*Each player plays one ball that is used in both of his or her matches."

Example of Three Ball Pairings

As an example, let's say you and two of your buddies decide to play a three ball match. We'll call you golfers A, B and C. You play as a group of three, each playing your own golf ball, and score at match play.

These are the pairings:

  • Golfer A is playing one match against B and another against C.
  • Golfer B is playing one match against C and another against A.
  • Golfer C is playing one match against A and another against B.

Again, each golfer in your group is playing two matches simultaneously, one against each of the other two members of the group.

Rules Differences in Three Ball

The vast majority of formats and games we explain are not covered in the official rules. But three ball is. Rule 21 is titled "Other Forms of Individual Stroke Play and Match Play."

And Rule 21.4 discusses the format of three ball. Quoting from the rule book:

b. Playing Out of Turn
If a player plays out of turn in any match, the opponent who should have played first may cancel the stroke under Rule 6.4a(2):
If the player played out of turn in both matches, each opponent may choose whether to cancel the stroke in his or her match with the player.
If a player’s stroke is cancelled only in one match:
*The player must continue play with the original ball in the other match.
*This means the player must complete the hole by playing a separate ball in each match.
c. Ball or Ball-Marker Lifted or Moved by One Opponent
If an opponent gets one penalty stroke for lifting a player’s ball or ball-marker or causing the ball or ball-marker to move under Rule 9.5b or 9.7b, that penalty applies only in the match with that player.
The opponent gets no penalty in his or her match with the other player.

Otherwise, all other Rules of Golf apply. These are the only variances for three ball.

A Couple More Notes About the Three Ball Format

  • When playing three ball, be careful not to pick up your ball after one opponent concedes a hole or a putt. Remember: You're playing two matches simultaneously. Just because one opponent gave you a concession doesn't mean the other will, too!
  • And don't confuse "three ball" with "threesome." The format called threesome is a "match in which one player plays against two other players, and each side plays one ball." In other words, in a threesome match, you play as a single against a team of two golfers who are playing alternate shot. ("Threesome" is also, in common usage, a synonym for any group of three golfers who are playing a round together.)

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