Like most things these days, the Ryder Cup and in particular how the opposing captains choose to partner the individuals on their teams, is in analytics overload. Everything from each player’s left rough tendency to his three-putt avoidance on the back nine has been put through any series of pseudo-egghead blenders and churned out as a defining metric for why this Swede speaks the same language as that Norwegian, or why this cordial Texan naturally completes this abrasive South Floridian.
But one of the oldest metrics at Ryder Cups, specifically when it comes to how the best partnerships might be divined for the foursomes, or alternate-shot rounds, has centered on golf balls. Specifically, isn’t it best to pair players who use the same ball?
In a word, no. As it turns out, it has proven of little actual value in generating success in foursomes play.
Looking at the last three Ryder Cup foursomes matches, there were 48 possible winning pairings. First off, only 15 of those pairings involved players using the same ball. (Editor’s Note: Ryder Cup officials now allow players to switch balls between holes rather than play the same make of ball the entire round.) The record of those 15 pairings? Six wins, nine losses. If you expand that ball-preference logic to say partners should at least use the same manufacturer of golf ball, the results are no less conclusive: Four wins, five losses.
As it turns out, the vast majority of the time in foursomes matches neither player comes in using the same ball as his playing partner. The record in those cases is actually better: 13 wins, 10 losses and one tie.
At the 2021 Ryder Cup, partnerships using the same ball were just 1-5, while those who came to the match using balls from completely different manufacturers were 4-1. The most dominant American duo, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, matches a Titleist Pro V1x man with a Callaway Chrome Soft X player. They easily won their two foursomes matches, including a Saturday win over Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick, two Pro V1x players.
Why this is may say something about how golf balls at the elite level generally live in fairly similar environments. Each manufacturer makes similar permutations to Titleist’s tour-dominant Pro V1 (lower flight off the tee) and Pro V1x (higher flight off the tee). But even if the golf ball distinctions are more clear than not—and they certainly may be to the elite of the elite in the golfing world—what probably matters more than golf ball is how much two players like being in each others’ company in the chaotic cauldron that is a Ryder Cup foursomes match. Or it could be that a better team is just a better team, whether they’re using a Titleist or a pond ball.
That said, Friday morning at Marco Simone, all of this will be put to the test again. The last European team out will be a partnership of players using the same balls. Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood both play TaylorMade TP5x. Their opponents? Cantlay and Schauffele.