Ryder Cup 2012: How It Works

Ron Juckett@ronjuckettContributor IIISeptember 27, 2012

Ryder Cup 2012: How It Works

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    The 2012 Ryder Cup kicks off Friday at Chicago’s historic Medinah Country Club.

    This bi-annual event features the 12 best professional golfers from the United States against the 12 best professional golfers from the European Union. Over the course of three days, they will play a match-play event that is as dramatic as anything you will ever see in sports.

    These 24 players truly care about representing their country or region. There is no public prize money on the line. Rather, this is an event that is mostly played for pride and friendship—much like on the amateur level—and it is very, very intense.

    Like poker, golf can actually be played in a variety of different ways. What we see week in and week out on television is stroke play. After so many rounds, the golfer with the lowest amount of strokes is the winner.

    Match play is an entirely different animal. In poker, you can become a master at five-card draw and no-limit hold ‘em. They are completely different games. However, it is still poker—it has the same basic rules even though there are a ton of ways to play the game.

    If you casually watch golf on television and happen to sit down to watch this weekend, you might feel as confused as the person who is a master of seven-card stud sitting at a table playing Omaha Hi-Lo.

    Lets take a couple of minutes to walk you through how match play and the Ryder Cup work.

Ryder Cup Basics

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    Up for grabs is a trophy called the Ryder Cup.

    Europe is the current holder of that cup after beating the United States two years ago in Wales.

    They play for the Ryder Cup every other year and the winner is determined on a points system.

    Over the three days of the Ryder Cup, there will be either one or two sessions of play. Each session will have a certain number of matches played, and each match will be worth one point.

    In total, there will be 28 matches played so there will be 28 points up for grabs.

    A match can be tied or halved. No match can go more than the full 18 holes, and any match that does will see half-a-point go to each team.

    Therefore, the Ryder Cup can finish with a 14-14 tie. If that ends up as the final score, the current holder would retain the Cup.

    The United States has to win 14.5 points out of 28 to win the Cup—anything less and the Cup stays with Europe.

Match Play Basics

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    Unlike what we see on a normal week, where the lowest score over 72 holes wins, what happens on one hole does not carry over to the next. Each hole is an individual event.

    Lets use a hypothetical example of Tiger Woods playing Rory McIlroy in a singles match. On the first hole, Tiger makes a birdie while Rory makes a bogey. What the actual score is on the hole does not matter. Tiger beat Rory by two shots and wins the hole. On television, you would see an American Flag on the scoreboard and the phrase “1 up” on the screen.

    On the next hole, they both make a birdie. Since they made the same score, no one won the hole. Tiger would still be one-up and Rory would be considered one-down.

    Okay, on the third hole, both players drop a shot for bogey. Again, since neither player had a better score than the other, the hole is considered halved and Tiger is still one-up.

    At some point during the match, one of the players will be almost down by as many holes as there are left to play. At that point, the match is called dormie. Basically, the losing player must win that hole to keep the match alive.

    For example, we have reached the 16th hole and Tiger is three-up on Rory. Rory must win each of the last three holes to keep the match alive. If they both make par, then the match ends because Tiger would have been three holes ahead with two holes to play.

    It would be a point for the United States and recorded as a three-and-two victory. On television, you might see it on the screen as "3&2."


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    The Ryder Cup system uses three different kinds of formats.

    The foursome format will be used on both Friday and Saturday.

    There will be four pairs from each side that will play against each other.

    For the example, we will take Tiger and Steve Stricker and play them against Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.

    In what is also called alternate shot, Tiger would hit the tee shot and Stricker would hit the second shot from where Tiger’s drive landed. Tiger would then either putt first or play the third shot from off the green.

    If Tiger missed the birdie putt or if they had some work to do to make par, then Stricker would putt.

    On the next hole, Stricker would tee off and Tiger would play the next shot.

    Both players on each team alternate on each hole and teammates and caddies can help read putts and assist.

    They go back and forth until we get a winner or the match is halved.


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    Fourball is also a team event.

    Like foursomes, we will see fourball matches on both Friday and Saturday.

    Fourball matches also have two partners against two opponents, but this time everyone plays the hole.

    Let's use our Tiger-Stricker pairing again. If Tiger loses a drive to the right off the tee, and Stricker finds the fairway, obviously Stricker has the better chance to score.

    They play the hole and the person with the lowest score on that hole gets credit and that team wins the hole.

    If Tiger, Stricker and McDowell make a par but McIlroy makes a birdie, then Rory’s lowest score would win the hole and credit would go to Europe.

    Even if McDowell hit his tee shot out of bounds and makes a double-bogey, McIlroy’s birdie counts and McDowell’s bad play never happened.


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    This is probably the format you are most familiar with, as it is the same as basic match play.

    One American player plays a round against a European player. Whoever wins the most holes wins the match and the point.

    There is only one singles session, and it is the last and only session on Sunday.

    Unlike the foursome and fourball matches, everyone plays. There are 12 points on the line.

    While it is mathematically possible to clinch the Cup before the singles session, it is a near certainty that the two teams will be within a couple points of each other going into this session and the Cup will be decided here.

    As other matches end and we know which match will be the deciding one, you will see players from both teams walk these last matches home.

    The atmosphere turns into one that you would find at a championship fight. It is the most intense pressure found in the sport.