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Charlotte's Johnson Wagner finds groove on PGA Tour

At lunch time Thursday, the images of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald playing in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is on the middle flat screen inside the men's locker room at Quail Hollow Club.

There is chicken corn chowder heating on a sideboard, a plate of cookies on the bar and the PGA Tour's hottest player - Johnson Wagner - finishing off a tuna melt sandwich. After starting 2012 with a tie for ninth at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, a win at the Sony Open in Hawaii and a tie for second in the Humana Challenge last week, Wagner and his famous new mustache took a week off.

He has lived in Charlotte for nearly a decade, one member of the city's growing family of professional golfers. Along with Webb Simpson, Robert Karlsson, Brendon de Jonge, Mathew Goggin, Jason Kokrak, Champions Tour player David Eger, Nationwide Tour player Corey Nagy and world No. 32 Martin Laird, who soon will be settled into a new home at Lake Norman, it's hard to find a tournament leader board without a Charlotte name on it.

Some of it is directly related to the success of the Wells Fargo Championship each May, which introduced Karlsson and Goggin to the area. Wagner moved here to be near family members as did Simpson, who relocated from Raleigh nearly two years ago.

Wagner's recent success prompted a small party with friends Tuesday night at Quail Hollow, complete with cell phone photos of various captains of Charlotte business wearing fake mustaches while posing with the FedEx Cup points leader. The party moved a few miles away later Tuesday but the glow remained through the week.

The win was enough to earn Wagner a Friday trip to Augusta National, courtesy of a member, a one-day working vacation in advance of his second appearance in the Masters in April.

In 2009, Wagner fell to 153rd on the tour money list. In 2010, he was 126th and lost his fully-exempt status, ironically a firestarter to get him where he is today. When Wagner won the Mayakoba Classic last year, he had found his professional footing again. Now, Slimmer by 15 pounds and with renewed energy thanks to an aggressive fitness program, Wagner, 31, has climbed to 68th in the world rankings.

The win at Mayakoba assured Wagner of being fully vested in the PGA Tour's pension program, easing his mind about the future. It also gave him a two-year exemption on the tour, just like the one he got for winning the Shell Houston Open in 2008.

"I'm not going to waste (the exemption) this time," Wagner says, glancing at the television. "After Houston, I still practiced hard, but I thought winning was easy and should just happen. I had forgotten how hard I'd worked to get there."

When Wagner finished 126th on the money list two seasons ago, it "gave me an appreciation for my job." He calls it the best thing that's happened to him during his golf career, forcing him to refocus on his game.

The goal now is to keep building. That means missing fewer cuts, turning a potential 40th-place finish into a top-25 and top-25s into top-10s.

While Wagner sits in the grill room at Quail Hollow, Simpson walks in to grab lunch. He spent the morning on the range, doing corporate work, taping golf tips.

Wagner, Simpson and Eger are members at Quail Hollow. The other pros play at various spots around Charlotte, Karlsson being based at the Club at Longview, de Jonge playing at Carolina Golf Club, Laird going to The Point and Nagy spending time at Charlotte Country Club.

It was coincidence that brought Wagner and Simpson together Thursday and it's their respective success that might get them paired together on tour more often this season.

A year ago, Simpson was outside the top 200 in the world rankings. As he settles into a leather chair and brushes back his longish hair, Simpson is No. 6 in the world, higher than every U.S. player but Steve Stricker. His 2011 season was magnificent with two victories and 12 top-10 finishes. Simpson went from a guy struggling to stay on tour to becoming a star and a likely Ryder Cup team member this fall, a transformation he credits in part to getting settled in his home here with his wife, Dowd, and their young son, James.

After two weeks in Hawaii, including a third-place tie at the Tournament of Champions, Simpson is finishing his second week off. Simpson and Wagner trade details of their travel plans to Phoenix this week, Simpson's only event before WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in late February.

"Dowd is home for seven straight weeks. Everything's great," says a smiling Simpson, who lives close enough to Quail Hollow to use the club's workout room most mornings.

If Wagner can move up three more spots in the world rankings, he'll be in the Match Play field for the first time.

Last fall, Simpson came in second in the FedEx Cup race and the tour money list, ending the year on a tear. This year, Wagner has started that way. In the lunch room at Quail Hollow, they're just two guys hanging out.

On the television, Karlsson has a share of the lead in Abu Dhabi. Small world, you know.

After doing a conference call with reporters in Mexico to promote the Mayakoba tournament, Wagner is heading out to play golf with a friend.

Simpson looks up from his salad.

"I may see you out there for the back nine," Smipson says.

"Come on," Wagner says.

It's cloudy outside, but it feels like the sun is shining at Quail Hollow.

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