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Leaderboard lacking star power

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For a tournament with a proven pedigree for flushing out pedigrees Thursday’s leaderboard looked more Greater Greensboro Classic than Wells Fargo Championship.

A course that has produced a proven list of winners in its 10 years in the PGA Tour rota – including a Tiger Woods, a Vijay Singh, a Rory McIlroy, a Lucas Glover and a Jim Furyk – seemed to go soft on Day 1 . . . literally.

“They just can’t get the greens too firm with this (hot) weather,” Webb Simpson said. Consider Simpson something of a resident specialist on Quail Hollow. He lives about a mile from the Carolina classic and is a regular when he’s not chasing millions on Tour.

But then soft green-light conditions only partially explain a first-round leaderboard that had a Bizarro World feel to it.

Check the record: World No. 2 McIlroy opened with a 2-under 70, No. 3 Lee Westwood managed a middle-of-the-pack 1-under card, No. 5 Hunter Mahan limped in at 1 over, No. 7 Woods carded an eventful 71 and was tied at 56th with No. 10 Phil Mickelson.

To put that line in context consider that a Monday-qualifying, road-weary journeyman named Patrick Reed clipped the “Big 5’s” combined best  . . . by two strokes, with an opening 6-under 66. He’s 972nd in the world golf ranking.

We’re not saying the world golf ranking is broken, just Quail Hollow’s secret mojo for producing top-shelf champions.

Simpson, who was paired with Woods for just the second time in his career on Thursday, adds a measure of cachet to the marquee and he certainly made the most of his round and his chance to play with “Red Shirt.”

“Last time I kicked him in his knee and he had to withdraw,” smiled Simpson, referring to Woods’ early exit from Doral on Sunday this year with an ailing left wheel. “We went from 10,000 people on every hole to zero people on every hole.”

Diminishing interest due to struggling superstars is a concept tournament officials are keenly aware of.

That Simpson is tied with Stewart Cink – who has, by his own account, been adrift competitively speaking – and Ryan Moore, who like Cink is winless since 2009, did little to boost the “Q” rating at what is largely considered a mid-major stop.

Cue Tour cliché: You can’t win a Tour event on Thursday, but you can certainly lose the plot. And on Thursday Quail Hollow seemed to drift off topic.

Perfect scoring conditions seemed to be the primary culprit, with more than half the field (79) carding under-par cards and the feared Green Mile losing a bit of its sting largely thanks to a new tee box at No. 17, as does the increasing impact of parity. But it’s still a fool’s bet to think that with the quantity of stars aligned at the Wells Fargo this week the course will not produce the familiar quality atop the leaderboard.

Not that any of the “Big 5” seemed overly concerned with the collective sluggishness. Not here where the Wall of Champions is a who’s who of modern Tour royalty.

Even Mickelson, who had a Masters moment on Thursday with a triple-bogey-7 at the fourth hole, didn’t seem overly worried, echoing, correctly, that when McIlroy marched to victory here in 2010 he narrowly made the cut.

“We’ve seen it with McIlroy in 2010,” Lefty figured. “The guy who makes the cut on the number can still win this tournament. It’s not something I’ll stress about.”

Ditto for Woods, who is playing his first tournament since the Masters – where he tied for 40th for his worst finish at Augusta National as a professional. Despite hitting just 8 of 14 fairways and flirting with the creek on the 18th hole, his first sentence on the record this week sounded more like a pep talk for tournament officials.

“I made too many mistakes on the front nine,” Woods said. “But still within reach, obviously.”

Obviously. This is, after all, Quail Hollow which – with the singular exception of affable Joey Sindelar, who won in 2004 – has been professional golf’s version of a rainmaker.

Quail Hollow doesn’t do dog champions, particularly not on the event’s 10-year anniversary. The turf will dry, the ball will bounce and the game’s biggest names will surface. They always do.

Thursday’s board may not be exactly what we’ve come to expect in this corner of Dixie, but that doesn’t mean Quail Hollow won’t deliver. It always does.