What Is the Fairway on a Golf Hole?

And Explaining Why This Key Golf Term Is Barely Used in the Rules of Golf

14th fairway at Wentworth Club golf course in England
The 13th fairway on the West Course at Wentworth Club near London, England. David Cannon/Getty Images

What is the fairway on a golf course? Such a simple question, and anyone who golfs knows the answer intuitively. But is there an agreed-upon definition within the golf world?

You might be surprised to know that the governing bodies and keepers of the rules of golf, the USGA and R&A, offer no definition of "fairway."

But that's OK, because we do. The fairway is one of the parts of a golf hole and can be defined in one of two ways:

  • The fairway is the closely mown area that runs between the tee box and putting green of a golf hole, and is the target for golfers on all holes other than par-3s (where you take aim at the green).
  • Another way of stating it: The fairway is the ideal landing area for shots off the tee, and is the pathway that leads the golfer from the starting point of the hole (the teeing ground) to the end point (the hole on the green).

The grass in the fairway is cut very short (it is "closely mown," in the parlance of the golf rule book) and because the rough on a hole is higher than the fairway grass, the rough often "frames" the fairway. That means the fairway stands out (usually) as the obvious connector of the teeing ground to the putting green.

Fairways are always included on par-4 and par-5 holes, but may be absent from par-3 holes (since those are short enough that the golfer's goal from the teeing ground is to place the golf ball on the putting green).

'Fairway' Is Almost Absent in the Rules of Golf

Since the fairway is an extremely important part of a golf hole, and the term "fairway" is ubiquitous in every golfer's lexicon, it is surprising that there is no official definition of the term in the Rules of Golf.

In fact, the term "fairway" appears only once in the Rules of Golf proper (Rule 1 through Rule 34), and then only to clarify the meaning of "closely mown area." It happens in Note 2 to Rule 25-2, where the governing bodies say this:

" 'Closely-mown area' means any area of the course, including paths through the rough, cut to fairway height or less."

Why does such an important term as "fairway" go almost completely unused in the rule book? Because the governing bodies use another term—"through the green"—that encompasses both fairway and rough. And "through the green" is used frequently in the rules. So anytime you see the term "through the green" used in relation to golf, just think "fairways and rough."

(Also note that "fairway" does appear elsewhere in the rule book, such as in the Appendix dealing with local rules. If a local rule is in place declaring winter rules, a k a preferred lies or lift, clean and place, are in effect, then golfers are allowed to improve the lie of a golf ball that is in the fairway.)

Greenskeepers Do Define Fairway

Greenskeepers, those invaluable members of the golf industry who tend our golf courses, do define the term. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America defines "fairway" thusly:

"... fairways are those areas of the course that are mowed at heights between 0.5 and 1.25 inches, depending on grass species and the cultural intensity desired. Fairways normally are about 50 yards wide but vary from about 33 yards to more than 60 yards, depending on the caliber of the golf course involved and limitations imposed by architecture or terrain."

The Meaning of 'Closely Mown' Fairway

What does "closely mown" means as it relates to fairway grass? LPGA Tour agronomist John Miller gave us some ranges for the mowing heights of different types of turf:

  • Bentgrass: 7/16 to 1/2 inch
  • Ryegrass: 3/4 to 1.25 inches
  • Bermuda: 1/2 to 3/4 inch
  • Fine fescues: 7/16 to 1/2 inch

Ralph Dain, a field rep for the GCSAA, says most fairway grasses are maintained from 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch.

The fairway height at any specific course depends on the type of grass in use, soil conditions, local weather, player expectations and golf course budgets (maintaining lower fairway heights is more costly).