The Double Meanings of 'First Cut' in Golf

Three golf course grass heights: fairway, first cut of rough and second cut of rough.
The golf ball sits on fairway grass and adjacent to the fairway is the first cut of rough. Outside the first cut is the second cut of rough. Jetta Productions/DigitalVision/Getty Images

"First cut" is a golf term that has two completely different and unrelated meanings. One refers to the rough on a golf course (the "first cut of rough") and the other refers to the trimming of golfers from a tournament field ("the first cut reduced the field from 100 golfers to 60").

First Cut of Rough

When applied to the rough on a golf course, "first cut" refers to the grass that is immediately alongside the closely mowed fairway, but grown slightly higher than the fairway grass. That rough that adjoins the fairway is the first cut of rough. ("Rough" is the term golfers use to indicate higher, thicker grasses that lay outside the favored playing corridors. Rough is usually thought of as a punitive thing: miss the fairway, land in the rough, have a tougher next shot.)

If a golf course has only one height of rough — and my golf courses do — there is no need to specify "first cut." One would just refer to the rough in such cases. But if a golf course uses "graduated rough" or "step-cut rough" — meaning it has multiple heights of rough — then "first cut of rough" refers to the lowest height of rough. (The higher grass cuts outside the first cut are called the "second cut" or "primary rough.")

The first cut can also be called the intermediate cut, when multiple rough heights are in use. "Apron" is a term usually applied to greenside rough, but when there are multiple cuts of rough adjacent to fairways, the first cut is sometimes called the apron.

Hitting into the first cut of rough is not typically a huge problem for golfers, pro and amateur alike. For pro golfers, it can cause a little uncertainty about how "hot" the golf ball will come out, perhaps leading to a slight misjudge in distance control. But with today's equipment, pro golfers can usually still spin the ball well when playing from the first cut of rough.

A first cut of rough, therefore, is not nearly as punitive as thicker, deeper cuts of rough can be. The first cut of rough can also serve to frame the fairway, making it easier for golfers on the tee to pick out where they want to aim.

First Cut in a Golf Tournament

A golf tournament "cut" is the winnowing of the field to roughly half following, most commonly, the second round of play. A pro tournament, for example, that begins with 144 golfers might be cut to 70 golfers following 36 holes of play (those golfers who are cut stop playing; the remaining golfers continue to the next round).

Most golf tournaments have just one cut after 36 holes. But a handful have two cuts, a "first cut" after 36 holes and a "second cut" after 54 holes. These can also be called the primary cut and secondary cut.

This usage of first cut is less common than the one that applies to golf course rough because "double cuts" in pro tournaments are rare today. (One exception is found in the PGA Tour cut rule, which includes circumstances that lead to first/second cuts in several tournaments per year.) So when you hear golfers using the term "first cut," it is most likely they are talking about the rough.