The Ryder Cup Format Explained

scoreboard of singles matches at the 2012 Ryder Cup
The Ryder Cup format includes 12 singles matches on the final day, as displayed on this leaderboard from the 2012 matches. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Ryder Cup tournament is played every two years and is contested by teams of male professional golfers, one team representing Europe and the other representing the United States. The format currently in use is this: Play takes place over three days and includes foursomes, fourball and singles match play, a total of 28 matches. 

"Singles" means one-vs.-one match play; foursomes and fourball are often called "doubles match play" because they involve two golfers per side. The two doubles formats are played over Days 1 and 2; the singles take place on Day 3.

Key Takeaways

  • The Ryder Cup is a three-day tournament in which teams representing Europe and the United States compete in match play.
  • Twenty-eight matches are played, with one point going to the winner of each. A tie results in a half-point to both sides.
  • Foursomes and fourballs formats are played the first two days, singles matches the third day.

How the Ryder Cup Works: The Basics

  • Teams and team selection: Team USA and Team Europe each consist of 12 golfers, making 24 golfers total participating in the Ryder Cup. Each side is led by a team captain chosen by the PGA of America and the European Tour, respectively. Each team captain selects his own assistant captains. How the Ryder Cup teams are chosen varies slightly from Team USA to Europe, but the basics are these: Each team captain chooses four players for his team; the remainder of the players are selected automatically based on points lists/money lists.
  • The match formats are foursomes, fourball and singles match play: The doubles match formats (foursomes, fourball) are two golfers per side; that is, the matches are two-vs.-two. Foursomes is also called alternate shot: Each side plays one golf ball; the golfers on that side alternate playing the strokes. In fourball, each golfer on a side plays his own ball (hence, there are four balls in play on each hole, one for each golfer in the match), and the lower score among the two partners counts as the team score.
  • How points are earned and the tournament won: Each match is worth one point to the winning player or side. Matches that finish tied are called halves, with a half-point going to each side. There are 28 matches in a Ryder Cup, so 28 points are at stake. The team that won the previous Ryder Cup needs 14 points to hold it; the other side must win 14.5 points to take the Cup away.

The Ryder Cup Schedule of Play

As noted, each Ryder Cup is played over three days. This is the daily schedule currently in use:

Day 1

  • On Day 1, there are four foursomes matches and four fourball matches.
  • One format is played in the morning session and the other in the afternoon session.
  • The order of the formats—which of foursomes and fourball is played in the morning session and which in the afternoon session—is decided by the home team captain.
  • Team USA and Team Europe each have eight golfers in play during each of the two sessions. Since they have 12-person teams, four golfers per team must sit out each of the two sessions.

Day 2

  • On Day 2, there are another four foursomes matches and another four fourball matches.
  • The order—which goes first in the morning session, foursomes or fourball—is the same as on Day 1.
  • This is the final scheduled day of doubles match play at the Ryder Cup, so, overall, there are four doubles sessions consisting of a total of 16 matches over the first two days.

Day 3

  • On Day 3, there are 12 singles matches.
  • Team captains turn in their respective orders of play without knowing what order the other team's golfers will play in.
  • Since there are 12 golfers per team, that means everyone plays on the third and final day of a Ryder Cup.
  • With 12 matches on the final day, the total number of matches played during a Ryder Cup is 28.

Note again that all players on a team must play in the singles session on the third day. However, only eight golfers per team are needed for each of the doubles sessions.

How the Opponents are Chosen for Matches

In the Ryder Cup, neither team captain knows which golfers the other team is sending out for any given session, nor the order in which those golfers will play. So the specific match-ups — which golfer from Team Europe meets which golfer from Team USA — are somewhat random.

But each captain does decide which golfers to pair with one another for the doubles sessions, which golfers to sit in those sessions, and, including the Day 3 singles, the order in which his golfers will tee off.

Ryder Cup Format Changes Over Time

The Ryder Cup format has changed multiple times in tournament history. In the early days golfers at a Ryder Cup played a maximum of two matches each; in some years of the 1960s and 1970s, there were two singles sessions (morning and afternoon) on the final day.

For all the formats used throughout the history of the Ryder Cup, see our Ryder Cup history feature. These are the biggest changes over time:

  • 1927: Ryder Cup debuts with 12 points total at stake over two days - four foursomes and eight singles.
  • 1961: Matches double from 12 to 24.
  • 1963: Fourballs played for the first time; also for the first time, play extended to three days.
  • 1981: The exact format used today, in terms of daily schedule and points at stake, first goes into effect.