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The Ryder Cup: A Beginner's Guide

Are you a golf rookie? Fear not, here's everything you need to know about the schedule and rules behind golf's biennial competition between Europe and the USA

Published: Monday, 20th September 2021 at 4:10 pm

The Ryder Cup is quite a complicated process to the golf layman, so here’s a quick overview of what’s going on.


The Ryder Cup Matches, to give the competition its full name, is a biennial competition played over three days between teams of 12 from the US and Europe, with a non-playing captain and a number of vice-captains on each side.

The European qualification process involves two complex lists, which ultimately ends up with ten automatic qualifiers, leaving the captain with two wildcard picks. The American system is far simpler, with one points table from which the top eight qualify and four captain’s selections.

The Ryder Cup is played out in match play format, a hole-by-hole scoring system in which a player, or team, score a point if they better their opponent’s score on a particular hole.

Sound complicated? It can be. (I liken it to the offside rule in football; easy to understand until it comes to explaining it to someone!)

In match play, if Player A plays the first hole in three shots and Player B takes four, the score will be 1-0 to Player A. Except in golf we refer to it as 1-Up.

If Player B wins the second hole, the match is level again – or All Square – and this continues until there is a winner over the 18 holes.

This also means there may be a winner before a full round is played. If a player or team is 2-Up after 17 holes, there are not enough holes for their opponent(s) to come back so the match ends and the score is recorded as 2&1 – meaning 2-Up with one to play.

The biggest winning margin in match play is 10&8 – or 10-up with eight to play. This scoreline has only occurred in two Ryder Cup matches: once in 1929 and again in 1947.

So how does it work over the three days? On both Friday and Saturday, four Foursome matches are played and are immediately followed by four Fourball matches.

Foursomes is an alternate shot format. Each team of two take alternate shots throughout the match, using the same ball. Fourball is also played out in teams of two, but this time each golfer plays their own ball and the best individual score from each team is recorded.

As there are only eight matches on each of the first two days, not all of the 24 players will be utilised. But on Sunday, all take part in 12 one-on-one singles matches, the draw for which is made on Saturday evening.

Scoring is simple. Win your match and it’s a point for your team; tie a match and it’s half a point each. To save you doing the maths, 14 points will win the Ryder Cup. If it finishes 14-14, Europe, as the holders, will retain the trophy.

This article was first published in September 2014.

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