Understanding What the Term "Rough" Refers to on a Golf Course

Golf ball sits in the rough during the final round of the Omega European Masters tournament
A golf ball sits in rough just off a fairway. This rough is intermediate, about half the height of the golf ball. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images

"Rough" refers to areas on a golf course outside of the fairways that generally feature higher, thicker grass or naturally growing (unkept and unmowed) vegetation.

Rough on a golf course serves a couple purposes:

  • It frames the fairway and, therefore, defines the intended corridors of play;
  • Most rough is designed to be punitive to players who miss the fairways. (Short rough, just a little bit higher than fairway height, usually isn't. But deeper rough interferes with making clean contact with the ball, or can even make it difficult to extricate the golf ball.)

Rough can vary in height and thickness depending on its location on the course, and often is found around bunkers and greens (called "collars" or "aprons" in those locations) in addition to outside of fairways.

Types of Rough on Golf Courses

Some golf courses cut their rough at varying heights, cutting it lower right next to the fairway, but cutting it higher the farther one gets away from the fairway. This is called "graduated rough," and the point is obvious: to make the rough more punitive the more the golfer misses the fairway.

The "first cut of rough" is a term applied to rough just off the fairway that is higher than the fairway but lower than the "second cut of rough." You guessed it: The "second cut of rough" is the really thick stuff.

Most upscale courses use a "first cut" and "second cut;" many other golf courses simply have one variety of rough throughout the course.

However, rough is not present on all golf courses. Some upscale courses choose to manicure one, uniform turf height through the green. It's more expensive to do that because it requires more mowing. Meanwhile, some courses at the lower end of the scale, where money for maintenance activities is harder to find, won't manicure any rough at all. If some grows, such a course has a rough; if none grows, no rough.

The Development of Rough in Golf

In the earliest days of golf courses, on the links of Scotland, golf courses lacked defined fairways and rough. There were no mechanical mowers, after all. The turf on old links was trimmed the natural way: by critters (sheep and goats, mostly, in the case of golf courses) nibbling away.

When mechanical mowing methods progressed, that gave golf courses the ability to begin sculpting their turfs in planned, patterned ways. And that gave golf course architects the ability to design rough, or even varying heights of rough; and golf course superintendents and greenkeepers the ability to carry out those design intentions.

Most golf courses intended for public play by golfers of various skill levels try not to let their rough get out of control — a half-inch or​ one-inch tall grass, at most. Any rough taller than an inch (especially if a thick-growing or coarse turfgrass is used) starts to become quite punitive. And punitive rough is a badge of honor at some golf courses and at some tournaments. The U.S. Open is infamous for growing out the rough on its host courses, sometimes to three inches or more within a few feet off the fairway.

Other Terms for Rough

There are a slew of slang terms that golfers use for rough: high grass, tall grass, spinach, weeds, hay, thick stuff, tall stuff, cabbage, broccoli, jungle and many others. Including some that we can't print here. (Golfers hate high rough!)