In Defense of the Three-Ball

Upon my return from a recent golf expedition to Scotland, I was grilled by a jealous buddy who had been unable to make the trip. He wanted to know everything. Not just what courses we played, but how many holes per day, betting stakes, team names. Everything.

“Well,” I began, “there were 12 of us, and…”

“Perfect,” he interrupted. “Three foursomes.”

“Yes, it was perfect,” I replied. “But we weren’t three foursomes. We were four threesomes.”

Heresy, I know, but I am here to speak up in defense of the most under-utilized format in American golf, the format that dares not speak its name: the threesome, or more accurately, the three-ball. American golfers are stuck in a four-ball rut—more often than not, a four-and-a-half hour rut. If we don’t play as a four-ball, our next instinct is to play as a two-ball. But, I say, why not mix it up a bit, add a little spice to your golfing diet, and arrange a three-way?

The most obvious reason to play a three-ball instead of a four-ball is speed. A three-ball plays 18 holes, on average, half an hour faster than a four-ball, and more like 45 minutes faster if the course is particularly difficult. This time saving was invaluable on the aforementioned trip to Scotland: Playing faster meant that we had more time to play 36 holes if we so desired, and, just as importantly, it meant that we were less likely to hold up the locals as we debated club selection and green speed with our four-ball partners. Another benefit to our three-dimensional approach was that it gave us a wider variety of tee times to choose from, as courses in Great Britain often set aside the most desirable tee times for two- and three-balls.

From a speed-of-play perspective, it’s worth noting that the Thursday and Friday rounds at PGA Tour events are played as three-balls, before reducing the field and switching to two-balls for the weekend rounds. Four-balls, the pros agree, would be interminable.

While the Tour has seen the light, three-balls are treated with disdain at many American golf courses. When a three-ball appears on the first tee, you can almost hear people on the practice green snickering, “Can’t those guys find someone else who wants to play with them?” Some clubs combat this attitude by offering ABC tournaments, where each group consists of an A player, a B player, and a C player. Rob Gick, head professional at the Sands Point Golf Club on Long Island, which holds several ABC tournaments a year, likes this approach because it allows players who don’t normally play together a chance to get to do so. “Besides,” says Gick, “if I have 24 guys show up, I would rather send them out as eight three-balls than six four-balls just to get them around quicker.”

Three-ball detractors cite a number of perceived drawbacks to the format: limited competition options, loss of revenue, caddie assignment, and cart management. Let’s examine these more closely:

LIMITED COMPETITION OPTIONS

I enjoy having a partner as much as the next guy, but it builds character to fly solo, as one does in a two-ball. A three-ball can build even more character. There’s nothing I like more than strapping on my tri-cornered golf cap and mixing it up with my two arch nemeses. We go mano à mano à mano—or “everybody plays everybody” as we like to say—and it’s every man for himself. A curling downhill five-footer suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when you need to sink it against one of your opponents, but you don’t want to blow it by the hole and risk a three-putt against your other opponent. Throw in some skins and there’s plenty of action to go around.

A more genteel game for three-balls is called “5–3–1” (I learned it as 4–2–0; same idea). The winner of a hole gets five points, second place three, and third place one. If there’s a tie, it’s 4–4–1, 5–2–2, or 3–3–3. “Lone Wolf,” in which each player takes turns competing against the other two, is also a popular three-ball game. And then there’s the rare but super-speedy threesome (proper usage): Players A and B hit alternate shots, teaming up against Player C, who plays his own ball. There are other choices—some more complicated than others—but the point is that there are plenty of options.

LOSS OF REVENUE

Public-fee facilities want to maximize income, so they might look upon a three-ball as missed revenue. Not necessarily. Let’s say you have 48 golfers, teeing off in four-balls, every 10 minutes from 8:00 until 9:50. Allowing for a four-hour round, the final four-ball would finish at 1:50. If the same 48 golfers teed off as three-balls every eight minutes from 8:00 until 10:00, allowing for 3½-hour rounds, the final group would finish at 1:30. Same number of golfers, same amount of revenue, 20 minutes saved.

CADDIE ASSIGNMENT

Some caddies (and caddie masters) don’t care for three-ball play because it means less income for the bag-toters. A caddie who normally carries two bags might be stuck carrying just one (or 1½, if the two caddies switch o after nine holes). Winged Foot caddie master David Zona, who estimates that 10 percent of the play on the club’s two courses is three-balls, doesn’t see this as a problem. “True,” says Zona, “if I send out two of our top caddies with a three-ball, they will make less money, but they will finish that much quicker, which increases their chances of getting back out for a second loop.” The three-ball, Zona points out, also provides a perfect opportunity for him to send out a “rabbit” with an experienced caddie, which allows the rookie to learn from a seasoned veteran.

CART MANAGEMENT

If you’re at a carts-only course, the odd man out might feel lonely driving solo. (On the other hand, he might enjoy the relative peace and quiet of tooling around on his own.) Many courses, however, will add an extension to a cart to accommodate a third bag, or simply squish three bags onto the back of a cart. Assuming one abides by the two-players-in-a-cart guideline, each player walks roughly a third of the time, which might be just about right.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that American golf become a three-ring circus 24/7. But in the interest of variety and speed of play, perhaps we need to realize that there are times when three’s company and four’s a crowd.

 

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