Venue change adds spice to Wells Fargo Championship

Only a handful of the golfers on the PGA Tour have played more than a few practice rounds on the site of this week’s Wells Fargo Championship.

That unfamiliarity along with the course’s inherent challenge and the area’s ever-present winds will add a little spice to the competition, which begins Thursday in Wilmington, N.C.

For the first time in its 14-year history, the Wells Fargo Championship will not be contested at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C. That facility is being prepared for the playing of the PGA Championship this August.

So the tournament will make a one-year stop some 200 miles east at the Tom Fazio-designed Eagle Point Golf Club, a facility that was ranked among the top 100 golf courses in the U.S. by Golf Digest in 2017.

A field of 156 players vie for a total purse of $7.5 million with $1.35 million and 500 FedExCup points going to the winner. Seventeen of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking will tee it up, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Australian Adam Scott (No. 10).

The field consists of 12 players inside the top 30 in the FedExCup, including three of the top 10 — Johnson, Spain’s Jon Rahm (No. 4) and Pat Perez (No. 7) — and three FedExCup champions, Fiji’s Vijay Singh (2008), Jim Furyk (2010) and Bill Haas (2011).

Nine of this season’s PGA Tour winners will also compete this week: Perez, Mackenzie Hughes, Hudson Swafford, Rahm, Johnson, D.A. Points and Wesley Bryan, as well as Zurich Classic of New Orleans winners Jonas Blixt and Cameron Smith. Sixteen major championship winners are among the golfers in the field, including five-time major champion Phil Mickelson.

Former U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson and Sweden’s Carl Pettersson are both members at Eagle Point Golf Club, where Pettersson holds the course record of 62.

“I just hope it doesn’t blow too much,” Pettersson said about the wind that can increase the test at Eagle Point. “The greens are slopey, and if you miss them it’s very difficult to get it up and down. It’s a pure place.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the last professional golf event played in Wilmington — the Azalea Open. That event was won by Arnold Palmer.

James Hahn, who won the 2016 event in a playoff with Roberto Castro, said he was trying to play as many practice holes as he could to prepare for anything the course could throw at him.

“I’ve played golf courses that I have seen for the first time and played well,” Hahn said. “It’s target golf. You see the fairway, hit the fairway; you see the green, hit the green. And then it’s just trust your eyes on the green.

“But a course like this, the more knowledge you have about it and the more times you play it you will play better. It’s the kind of course that you can play it a hundred times and still not know every little intricacy of the greens, fairway, the wind, and how to play certain holes.”

Johnson returns to competitive golf for the first time since he was forced to withdraw from the Masters after falling down a short flight of stairs at a rent house and injuring his ribs.

“I’m good to go,” Johnson said. “I have been sore for a while a lot longer than I thought I would be. I’ve had more time off than I wanted to have. I haven’t played many rounds and no competitive rounds since six weeks ago. Last Friday was the first day I hit balls and didn’t feel (any pain) — the MRI didn’t show anything so I was just bruised badly.

“I’m feeling good. I feel like I’m swinging well and hitting the ball pretty good. I’m healthy — I can’t complain.”

Johnson becomes the seventh player to play the Wells Fargo Championship while holding the FedExCup lead.

“The golf course is in perfect condition and I really like it,” he said. “It’s challenging and will really be if the wind kicks up. You’ve got to be in the fairway, because if you’re not you are not going to be able to stop the shots on these firm greens.”