Fire ants took a bite out of Hideki Matsuyama’s round — what do the rules say he could have done?

SAN ANTONIO — There are numerous nuances that make golf in Texas a little different than elsewhere.

Bermuda that can mess with the world’s best. Consistent breezes typically originating in the Gulf of Mexico. Knotty live oaks that reach far and wide through undulating Hill Country fairways.

And as Hideki Matsuyama found out during his final round on Sunday at the Valero Texas Open, the most painful obstacle of all — fire ants.

Matsuyama opened his final round on the TPC San Antonio Oaks Course with a pair of birdies on his first four holes to get back on the leaderboard. He gave one back on the sixth hole but looked in good position on the par-5 No. 8 when his second shot rolled into thick grass just off the green. Matsuyama, who at the time was 3 under for the tournament, chipped from 30 yards away, giving himself a nice look at birdie.

Hideki Matsuyama lines up a putt on the 12th hole during the first round of the Valero Texas Open golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Soon after, though, Matsuyama sprung from the grass, wiping the bottom of his white pants. He soon realized he’d been standing in a pile of fire ants, a hazard that can leave a lasting impression.

As Sung Kang chipped and Graeme McDowell putted, Matsuyama sat just off the green, trying mightily to wipe the ants away while pulling his shoes and socks off in the process.

After finally gathering himself, Matsuyama burned the edge on a 10-foot birdie putt and was tapped in for par. He followed with bogeys on each of the next two holes.

According to the rules, Matsuyama might have been able to find relief if he desired, but he chose not to.

The rule

While ant hills may pose a variety of challenges for a golfer, there is no provision in the Rules of Golf that specifically states what to do about the problem. But the rules interpretations provided by the U.S. Golf Association do offer some answers for golfers confronting ants, whether in or out of a hazard.

Loose Impediment

USGA Decision 23/5 specifically designates an ant hill as a loose impediment. That’s good news for players outside of penalty areas, who may remove loose impediments without penalty.

Under Rule 23-1, however, a player may neither touch nor remove any loose impediment in the same penalty area as the ball. If he does so, the penalty is loss of hole in match play or two strokes in stroke play.

Ants on the Ball

Insects and insect-like animals, including ants, are also treated as loose impediments, according to Decision 23-1/5.

Within penalty areas, therefore, ants may not be touched or removed from the ball. Pursuant to Decision 23-1/5.5, however, a player may wave a hand or other item near the ball to try to get a crawling animal off of the ball. Whether such an action would cause an ant to leave the ball is questionable.

Abnormal Ground Conditions

When abnormal ground conditions interfere with a player’s ball he is permitted relief without penalty, even when the ball is in a penalty area. Although abnormal conditions may include a “hole, cast or runway … made by a burrowing animal, a reptile or a bird,” ants and ant hills are not included within the definition abnormal ground conditions.

Local Rules

A player’s only hope of relief from ants or an ant hill in a penalty area is via a local rule. Decision 33-8/22 notes that certain ant hills are “conical in shape and hard,” in which case a local rule designating such areas as ground under repair may be appropriate. Ground under repair is a type of abnormal ground condition, allowing for relief without penalty.

The USGA decision also suggests that courses offer a local rule permitting relief from areas near fire ant holes. Because fire ant bites are painful and potentially serious, the ants’ appearance may be treated as a dangerous situation, allowing free relief pursuant to Decision 1-4/10.

However, relief isn’t always granted, and can be determined by a rules official. In Memphis last summer, Bryson DeChambeau notoriously asked for a drop after he said a fire ant hole was impeding his stance.

“It looks like an ant hole, or ant area,” DeChambeau said to PGA Tour tournament referee Ken Tackett at the WGC event.

“I just don’t see Bryson, honestly … I don’t see fire ants,” Tackett said after some discussion.