Best Ball, Alternate Shot, Scramble and Match Play for Non-Golfer Parents

team golf best ball

I attended a High School golf tournament recently. The teams were playing a Ryder Cup format which is a combination of Best Ball, Alternate Shot and straight up individual Match Play.

On the walk to the particular tee our players were starting off from (it was a shot gun start - so the whole field starts at the same time just on different holes), I chatted briefly with a mom following her son and his teammate out to hole 16. "They are playing Better Ball," she said. "I sure hope they know what that means."  I assured her that they would know, but it occurred to me that, while parents who have kids that have played junior golf competitively since they were in elementary school probably know the different play and scoring formats - a non-playing parent of a junior golfer who finds the sport later, say in high school, might be quite confused. 

For parents who are non-golfers and have juniors playing in the PGA Junior League (which adopts a 2 person scramble, match play format) or who arrive at a High School tournament being played along the lines of Best Ball, Alternate Shot and individual Match Play - this article is for you.

2-Person Best Ball

In a Best Ball format, two players compete as a team. Each plays the hole with his own ball and the lowest score between the 2 players at the end of the hole is the team score for that hole. For example, if Player A shoots a 6 and Player B a 5 for the hole - the scorecard will reflect a 5 for the hole.

Best ball can be played as a Match Play format or a Stroke Play format. See more below on Match Play vs Stroke Play.

The Ryder Cup format is a Match Play format where each hole counts as it's own match or "point". So if one team scores and 5 and a 6 (with the 5 counting as low score) and the other team scores a 4 and a 7 (with the 4 counting as low score), the team with the 4 wins the hole and goes one up (assuming it is the first hole). 

In a Stroke Play Best Ball format each team records their one lowest score for each hole for all 18 holes. The 18 hole cumulative lowest score is the winning team. Therefore, as opposed to a Match Play format, each team must putt out and finish every hole with at least one of their balls.


The PGA Junior League utilizes a 2 person scramble format for its matches. It is a great format to introduce beginner and young players to competitive golf. The 2 players forming the team will each tee off with their own balls. The players then decide which drive is going to count and place a marker (commonly a tee) at the site of the ball they have chosen to hit their second shots from. They will position their balls for the second shot within a club distance from the marker. The players will then both play their shots from this spot and again pick the shot they like better. This continues until they hole out. Besides being a fun format, this also makes for a faster round!

Alternate Shot

In an Alternate Shot format, 2 golfers playing as a team play only one golf ball, taking turns to play the strokes. It is also known as "Foursomes" and is used under this name in the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup. Tee shots also need to be alternated so Player A will tee off on hole 1, Player B will then tee off on hole 2.  A lot of strategy goes into deciding who will tee off first and the Rules of Golf (Rule 29) provides heavy penalties for playing out of order. 

Match Play

Junior golf tournaments are, for the most part, individual Stroke Play events. So the player scores each hole with the amount of strokes he took on the hole. 

In Match Play, holes are scored on the basis of who won the hole. (It can be looked at as a round of golf consisting of 18 individual matches.) The number of strokes a player takes to complete a hole is largely irrelevant and is not usually recorded. It's the player with the lowest score that wins the hole and is awarded a point (e.g. an 8 can still win a hole if the other player scores 9 or worse). If the player/teams tie the hole, the hole is regarded as "halved" and each is awarded 1/2 a point. The player/team with the most points at the end is the winner.

Some interesting terminology comes out of the Match Play format. If players are tied at any point during the round they are "all square". If a player/team has, say a 2 hole lead, they are "2 up". If a player/team is up by a number that matches the number of holes remaining, so for example 5 up with 5 holes to play, the leading team is "dormie" (cannot lose and at worst can tie). The final score is stated as a function of the margin of victory. So if a team is up by 4 holes and only 2 holes remain, they can stop playing and the final score is stated as "4 and 2".

The PGA Junior League utilizes the Match Play scoring system. It is also utilized in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competitions. 

As we parents stroll around the golf course following our players, we need to remember that, while it may add an extra contour to our level of understanding of what our junior golfer is accomplishing (or not) out there on the golf course, our most important role is that of cheerleader. A role which can easily and unnecessarily be eroded by focusing too much on whether that alternate shot really was the best ball to play to put a dent in the rival team's dormie status!

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