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Ryder Cup 2012 format and rules: foursomes, fourballs, and singles, oh my!

The Ryder Cup can be complicated. Here is your guide to how it works.

Andy Lyons - Getty Images

Golf's greatest team competition starts Friday, as the 39th Ryder Cup matches tee off at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago. The Ryder Cup is contested between two teams of twelve professionals, one team from the United States and the other from Europe. What had been a little-watched contest between the United States and England turned into a heated, Olympics-like competition in the 1980s, when the rules were changed to allow non-English Europeans like Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal to compete, leveling the playing field and stoking the competitive fires of the players.

The format of the Ryder Cup is unlike any other tournament. The event consists of 28 matches over three days, with each match worth a point. The team that wins the most points wins the Ryder Cup until the event is again played two years later. In the event of a tie, the defending champion -- in this year's contest, the Europeans -- retains the Cup. All matches are scored using match play rules.

In the first two days of competition, the players compete in teams of two in games called "foursomes" and "fourball". In foursomes, the players alternate their shots until the hole is completed. The team members also alternate tee shots. In fourball, each player plays his own ball from tee to cup, with the lowest score for each team counting. Friday begins with four foursomes matches in the morning and four fourball matches in the afternoon. The order flips on Saturday, so that each day holds a maximum of eight points. There is no requirement that all 12 team members participate in the Friday/Saturday matches. On Sunday, the teams square off in twelve individual matches. Each captain places his team in a playing order, and the players are paired according to that order. At the end of the day Sunday, a Ryder Cup championship team is crowned.

Ryder Cup coverage begins on Friday morning at 7:00 p.m. CT on ESPN and ESPN3, with the broadcast moving to NBC Saturday and Sunday.