The Ultimate Guide to the Ryder Cup

I don’t know about you, but the Olympics of Golf is something I am glued to for three days in September every two years. Yep, I’m talking about the Ryder Cup. And yes, I’m an American. And yes, us Americans have had our asses handed to us for too many Ryder Cups in a row. But there’s no other spectacle in golf that brings together the 12 best Americans and 12 best Europeans to compete for national pride and each other. No purse. That’s right, there is no prize money up for grabs at this biennial competition.

In the age of multi-million dollar appearance fees and even larger purses, you’d think the Ryder Cup would be a low priority for the game’s best. Such couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask Ian Poulter, Patrick Reed or Sergio Garcia. The Ryder Cup transcends professional golf in a way that no other event can or ever will. Don’t believe me? Just think back to Ben Crenshaw’s squad that overcame the largest deficit in Ryder Cup history at the Country Club at Brookline in 1999. Or the War by the Shore in 1991 at Kiawah Island. The list of indelible moments goes on and on. Are you a touch Ryder Cup ignorant? Read on.

Ryder Cup History

Ryder Cup Photo
Ryder Cup. Source

Named for London-based businessman and avid golfer Samuel Ryder, the first Ryder Cup matches were held in 1927 at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts. The European team, captained by the legendary big-hitting Ted Ray was pitted against a formidable American squad lead by the ever frenetic Walter Hagen. The Americans won the inaugural match by a score of 9 ½ to 2 ½.

From that day forward the Ryder Cup has been contested every other year with the exception of 2001 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks caused the matches to be postponed to the following year.

While the Americans dominated the matches for much of the 20th century, the Europeans have laid waste to the Yanks in seven of the last nine Ryder Cups. 

Team Selection

4ryder cup
Ryder Cup Team. Source

Qualifying for the Ryder Cup is something that’s at the forefront of players’ minds at all times. Based on how they finish in tournaments over a two-year period, players accumulate points and the eight top earners automatically qualify for the team. The last four players are individually selected by the American and European captains.


The pairings for Ryder Cup matches are anything but random. Once the teams are solidified, captains and their vice-captains spend hours strategizing potential pairings based on chemistry, how one player’s game complements that of another and who is playing well.

The night before the matches are set to begin, the opposing captains meet to decide the pairings for the first session of matches. If the American captain picks his team first, the Europeans counter and pick their team first for the next match. This pairings process is repeated after each set of matches.

Ryder Cup Format

The Ryder Cup format has changed many times since its inception in 1927 but the way it sits presently doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. The competition takes place over three days with the first two days comprising four four-ball matches (best ball) and four foursomes matches (alternate shot) using the match play scoring format. The final day sees all 12 players from each team competing against each other in head-to-head match play matches. The venue for the matches alternates between the U.S. and Europe.

Four-Ball Format

Also known as the best ball format, fourball matches are contested between two two-man teams. The best score on a particular hole between two players on a team is pitted against the lower of two scores of the players on the opposing team.

As an example, if players A and B are on team 1 and player A scores four and player B scores three, player B’s score is recorded for the team. On team 2 if both players score four, team 1 wins the hole and goes one up in match play. The team that wins the most holes over an 18-hole match is the winner.

Foursomes Format

Commonly called alternate shot, the foursomes format also has two two-man teams competing against each other using match play scoring. If player A hits the tee shot, player B hits the second shot and the sequence continues until the ball holed. The teams that scores the lowest on a hole wins and the team that wins the most holes out of 18 is victorious in the match.


Arguably the most exciting format in the Ryder Cup is the Sunday singles matches where all 12 players from each team play against one another. The format is straight-up match play and the player that scores the lowest on the most holes wins.

Team Scoring

Each match over the course of three days is worth one point to the winner. What makes the Ryder Cup a little unusual is that there are no playoffs if matches are tied at the end of 18 holes. Instead, each team receives ½ point.

Seeing as there are 28 matches, the first team to score 14.5 points wins the cup outright. Should the matches end in a tie of 14 points each, the team that won the previous match is said to retain the cup.

The Ryder Cup and You

ryder cup
Trophy. Source

While the Ryder Cup is something you’ll surely want to tune into, you can make your own version of the competition as well. If you go on an annual buddies trip, the Ryder Cup format makes for a fun and competitive experience. There’s no rule that says you have to mimic the same format as the Pros so you’re free to get as creative as you want.

Setting Up the Teams

On one of my annual buddies trips, 16 of us get together for three days of golf and trash talking. Eight of us played college golf at Oregon State (Go BEAVS!) and the other eight played at the University of Oregon. For us, picking teams is easy.

Other ideas for picking teams might include where players are from, maybe Americans vs. Canadians. If it’s a father-son trip, try pairing dads on one team and sons on the other.

How you pick your teams is entirely up to you but one thing you’ll want to keep in mind is trying to keep the teams as equal as possible in terms of ability. If you have a mix of high and low handicaps, spread them out evenly.

Choosing the Right Formats

Unless you’re all scratch players, you probably don’t want to choose difficult formats like alternate shot. Doing so might seem like a good idea, but you’ll quickly find that everyone becomes frustrated and the element of fun is lost.

Instead, choose formats that are fun to play and won’t keep you on the course until dark. Games like 2-man scrambles and stableford scoring keep everyone honest but are fun as well.

For the final day, choosing match play singles matches is the best way to go. This format is a little more difficult and the pressure of playing one-on-one can make for an exciting finish.

Put Something on the Line

If you’re like me, there’s nothing better than having a few bucks on the line. In my group, there is a payout for every individual match you win and a larger payout that goes to the winning team. You might say we like to gamble.

If your group is not as degenerate as mine, find a prize that is meaningful to everyone. It doesn’t have to be much or make sense to anyone else but having your own version of a trophy gives everyone something to play for and is sure to create good natured ribbing throughout the trip.

The Ryder Cup is unlike any other event in golf. The levels to which players raise their games and the passion and pride with which they play makes the event one of the most exhilarating in all of sports. While the Europeans have dominated the matches of late and there have been some ugly blowouts (including the 2018 matches in France), the atmosphere and electricity of the event get the juices going.

Maybe watching the Ryder Cup on television will give you the inspiration to start your own with a group of your friends. You’re free to get as creative with the formats as you want and nothing beats the bragging rights you earn if you’re on the winning team. As long as every one in your group is on the same page and the teams are as evenly matched as possible, there’s not much that can go wrong. While we probably won’t broadcast your matches on national television, at the very least you’ll get to experience sweaty palms and stressful three-footers which is why we play the game in the first place. 

About the Author

Scott is a professional writer and has been a golfer his entire life.  After playing at Oregon State University he spent time playing on the Gateway Professional Tour. Six subsequent years working as a Club Professional allowed Scott to pursue his passion of helping others become better players.  Scott now spreads his love of golf through the written word as a full time author and copywriter. 


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