braswell@postandcourier.com

There are two notable absences in the field for the 65th annual Azalea Invitational golf tournament that begins Thursday at the Country Club of Charleston, but tournament chairman David Humphreys said that won’t take away from the event that has helped launch a number of PGA Tour careers.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who has played in the Azalea for several years, decided not to enter this year’s event, and defending champion Matt NeSmith, now a freshman at the University of South Carolina, will be playing in The Hootie at Bulls Bay that starts Sunday.

NeSmith shot a final-round 66 last year and beat Jim Liu by three shots. Liu, the country’s top-ranked junior player, won the 2010 U.S. Junior at age 14, replacing Tiger Woods as the youngest champion of the national event.

“I think we have a very strong field this year,” Humphreys said. “We have Nathan Smith, a four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, and we have five of the top 10 juniors in the country. It should be another good tournament.”

Liu and fourth-place finishers Brad Wilder and Michael Miller are back for this year’s event.

Tae Wan Lee, No. 7 in the national junior rankings, also is in the field.

Smith, who won the second of his four Mid-Amateur titles in 2009 at Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique course, also will be trying to tune up his game for the Masters.

Hilton Head’s Todd White, the South Carolina Golf Association player of the year, and Scott Harvey of Greensboro, N.C., who was the Carolinas Golf Association player of the year, also are entered.

Also entered are Taylor Funk, son of PGA veteran Fred Funk, Eric Hallberg, whose father Gary Hallberg was also on the PGA Tour.

U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson is a two-time winner of the title, and Brandt Snedeker, the current FedEx points leader on the PGA Tour, played the Azalea as a tuneup for the 2004 Masters after earning a spot in Augusta by winning the U.S. Public Links title.

Tee times run from 8 a.m.-2:10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with the field cut for Sunday’s final round.