You’re all set for a Battle Royale only to discover your closest golfing companion is unable to compete. Let Steve Carroll steer you through these uncharted waters

You’re all set for that crunch fourball knockout match but your partner is nowhere to be seen.

What happens now? Can you carry on? Do you have to forfeit? How on earth do you sort out the handicaps if it’s the low handicapper that hasn’t arrived?

If you’ve ever found yourself sailing solo against a side in a match you might have wondered if you found the right solution. Let’s see if we can uncover the truth of these fourball golf rules…

Fourball golf rules: Determining handicap allowance in match play

Sometimes you can find great questions in interesting places. I need to give some credit for my own rules development to Fraser Nicol. If you’ve never come across Fraser, his Facebook group, ‘The Golf Rules Samaritan’, is a great resource for budding and serving rules officials. I’m not sure how many people he’s helped to pass their exams over the years but I am one of them!

You can also find him popping up on various rules groups across the Meta platform steering people in the right direction.

It was, in fact, on one of these online groups that Fraser saw this question and provided the answer. It’s found in a clarification to Rule 23.4.

We’ll get to that in a minute but let’s set the ground rules first. Rule 23.4 says that in fourball a side (that’s how the rules define two or more partners which compete as a single unit) “may be represented by one partner during all or any part of a round”.

Did you know that? It’s not actually necessary for both partners to be present or for both to play on each hole.

That’s why your playing partner can turn up late for a game and you won’t pick up a penalty – as long as you were there and ready to play at the starting time.

When they finally arrive, they can start play for the side “only between the play of two holes”.

What does that mean in practice? In match play, if a player on either side has “started play of a hole” and your partner then turns up, they are not allowed to play for the side until the next hole.

fourball golf rules

If it’s a stroke play competition, the latecomer has to wait until the next hole only after “the other partner has started play of a hole”.

Now, if they find themselves on the sidelines for a couple of shots that doesn’t mean they can’t still be useful.

They can give advice, as much as is allowed under Rule 10, and they can even mark, lift, replace, drop and place your ball. But beware. If they get out of line, any action they take regarding your ball or equipment is treated as having been taken by you.

OK, so what about handicaps and our initial question? What if the lowest handicap is the one who’s missing? Here comes the clarification.

If, in a fourball match, it’s the low number who is a no-show, “the absent player is not disregarded given that they may start play for the side between the play of two holes”.

Handicap strokes for the match are worked out “as if all four players are present”. And if you get the handicap wrong for the absent player, Rule 3.2c (1) comes into force.

That’s right. Give your missing colleague too many shots and I think you’ll both be disqualified in match play under Rule 23.9 (1) – even though that player may never have actually taken part!

Have a question for our Rules of Golf expert?

Despite the simplification of the Rules of Golf, there are still some that leave us scratching our heads. And as I’ve passed the R&A’s Level 3 rules exam with distinction, I’ll try to help by featuring the best in this column.

You can read all of Steve’s Rules of Golf explained columns here.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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