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PGA Wells Fargo tournament not what it once was but close

In the space of a few hours one day last week, the Wells Fargo Championship field lost one of the world’s best-known players and picked up another.

Such is life now for the Wells Fargo tournament, which continues to be one of the most attractive non-majors on the PGA Tour’s schedule but is no longer assured of a field including virtually every top golfer in the world.

Instead, it only gets nearly all of them now.

At no time was that dynamic more apparent than one afternoon last week, when Bubba Watson, the world’s fourth-ranked player and a few days removed from his Masters championship, withdrew from the Wells Fargo, which is scheduled for May 1-4 at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club. Later in the day, however, Phil Mickelson lessened the sting by committing to play.

Getting Mickelson is big for tournament executive director Kym Hougham, especially with the loss of Watson and Tiger Woods, who is out indefinitely while recuperating from back surgery.

Hougham said Woods would have played in Charlotte had he not had surgery. And he knows the demands on Watson’s time since his victory at Augusta National have been draining.

“We’re sorry to lose Bubba, but we’re always worried about the Masters champion,” Hougham said.

Hougham is pleased with this year’s field, which is close to being set (entry deadline is Friday). Seven of the world’s top 20 players are heading to Charlotte, most notably ninth-ranked Mickelson and No. 10 Rory McIlroy. Rickie Fowler, the 2012 champion, is also back, as is 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and last year’s Wells Fargo winner Derek Ernst.

There are also plenty of top local tour players who have committed, including Charlotte residents Webb Simpson, Johnson Wagner and Brendon de Jonge, as well as Charlotte-native Bill Haas and Columbia’s Dustin Johnson.

Still, the Wells Fargo was once a tournament that few, if any, of the world’s top players would miss – much less each of the world’s top eight players, as is the case this year. But times change.

Hougham acknowledges the tournament isn’t the tour’s shiny, bright event it once was. Always one of golf’s better-run tournaments since its 2003 inception, the Wells Fargo continues to attract top players because of the quality of the Quail Hollow course and how well the tournament treats the competitors.

“We’re not a new golf tournament any more,” Hougham said. “Players are going to go where they think they have their best chance to win. Some guys might not hit it high enough or far enough here. They might hit it too far right or left. Whatever their reasoning is, it’s not anything that we’re doing. I just think times have changed and scheduling is different.”

There are myriad reasons why so many top players are skipping Charlotte next week. Not the least of them is the Wells Fargo being tightly sandwiched between the Masters and the upcoming Players Championship:

Hougham said Woods’ withdrawal earlier this month affected ticket sales but expected the tournament to be sold out.

“We’ve had a nice, steady surge of sales going on,” Hougham said. “We want to accommodate as many people as possible.”