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High expectations for Masters rookies this year

Jordan Spieth is one of 24 first-timers competing in Augusta this week.

Matt Scolum/AP

Jordan Spieth is one of 24 first-timers competing in Augusta this week.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — For someone not yet old enough to legally consume alcohol, Jordan Spieth is proving to be wise beyond his years.

There he was on Monday, before the heavy rains came, hanging out with Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw on the practice green at Augusta National Golf Club, digging for information from a pair of players who have combined to win the Masters four times. There he was on Tuesday, enjoying a practice round with Lucas Glover, who has played in the Masters six times. Glover has a pretty clear idea where the tournament pins will be located, giving Spieth a chance to putt toward those exact spots.

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When you’re in Spieth’s shoes, Masters week — especially before Thursday’s first round — is part fact-finding mission, part baptism by fire. There’s only one way for someone without any Masters experience to gain it, shot by shot and hole by hole: ask lots of questions, and pay very close attention to the answers.

Rarely has a first-time player won the Masters. In 77 previous tournaments, it’s only happened three times, and never since 1979. But rarely has a rookie class come to Augusta with such lofty credentials, creating an expectation that this might finally be the year when a first-timer makes his maiden Masters voyage a winning one.

“If I can get my game ready and play to the right spots and play smart golf and play my ‘A’ game, then I believe that I have a chance, just like I think anybody else here does,” said Spieth, a 20-year-old Texan who started last year as a rookie with no PGA Tour status, and ended it on the US Presidents Cup team.

“I can see where it’s difficult, definitely. But at the same time, if you’re hitting the ball well enough and you’re putting well enough, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

History says otherwise. Not since Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago has a Masters winner been a Masters rookie. The only other two were the first two: Horton Smith in 1934 and Gene Sarazen in 1935. The main reason for that, veterans say, is because the golf course is presented to the field like a test. It requires you to study hard, with plenty of practice.

More times around means more knowledge, and more knowledge means fewer moments of uncertainty. A golfer who knows what to expect from all the subtleties Augusta National brings is better prepared to deal with the breaks and bounces that tend to go the wrong way.

Spieth is one of 24 first-time players at this year’s Masters. Not counting the inaugural year of 1934 — everyone was a rookie — it marks the most first-timers in tournament history, edging the 23 in 1935. There were 22 first-timers in both 1962 and 1966.

The record was clinched on Sunday, when Matt Jones chipped in for birdie to win the Shell Houston Open in a playoff. Fellow Masters rookie Steven Bowditch won the week before, at the Valero Texas Open.

This batch of newbies impresses not just by quantity, but quality. Of the 24, six are amateurs. Of the remaining 18 professionals, 10 have won PGA Tour events since last year’s Masters, and two of them — Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker — have three tour wins each. Eleven of the 18 professional first-timers are ranked among the top 50 players in the world — Spieth is the highest, at No. 13 — further spotlighting how strong of a class it is.

Spieth was here two years ago, as a spectator. Reed had the opportunity to play the course once a year when he was a student at nearby Augusta State University (the team won back-to-back NCAA team titles).

One thing that Reed has never lacked is confidence. That hasn’t changed this week, and maybe it shouldn’t: He’s won three times in his last 15 PGA Tour starts.

“Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times,” Reed said. “When it comes down to it, it’s just going to be one of those things that whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy.”

There have been recent exceptions — Jason Day finished second three years ago in his first Masters — but it seems the person who plays the best is someone who’s been here before, many times before, has gotten the initial shock out of their system, and learned through prior trips where and where not to go.

“Players who have had multiple years playing here and know how to play certain holes, how to play certain pin placements, will have a distinct advantage,” said Phil Mickelson, who won the first of his three Masters in 2004, on his 12th try.

Still, odds are that sooner or later, a player without any previous Masters experience will put everything together for four days and join Smith, Sarazen, and Zoeller among the first-time champions.

The 24 men here this week hope it’s now, and it’s them. Even some of the Masters veterans know, because of the rookie strength this year, that it’s a possibility.

“I think you get a couple years under your belt, and you feel pretty good about it,” said Jim Furyk, whose best finish in 17 previous Masters is fourth. “But I also feel like as good as our young talent is now, and as competitive and as many tournaments as they win, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes here and wins for the first time.”

If it’s Spieth, he’ll make history on two fronts. Not only would he end the 35-year drought, but at 20, he’d also become the youngest Masters champion.

“There’s an emphasis on first-time winners — or the lack of first-time winners,’’ Spieth said.

“But I don’t see that it’s a big deal at all. I think that if I get my game ready, then it’s possible.”

Masters rookie roster

A look at the record 24 first-time participants will compete in this year’s Masters:

PlayerRankComment
Jonas Blixt56Has a PGA Tour win in each of the past two years
Steven Bowditch131Won the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago
Roberto Castro87Four-time All-American at Georgia Tech.
Brendon de Jonge80Played in Presidents Cup last year for International team
Graham DeLaet30Had back-to-back seconds at Torrey Pines, Phoenix
Victor Dubuisson21Lost to Jason Day in spirited Match Play final
Harris English36Has two PGA Tour wins since last year’s Masters
Derek Ernst168Since Wells Fargo win last year, has made just 9 of 27 cuts
Matt Every42Won the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one shot
Matthew FitzpatrickAmateurWon 2013 US Amateur at The Country Club
Stephen Gallacher38Repeated as Dubai Desert Classic winner this year.
Oliver GossAmateurRunner-up at 2013 US Amateur at The Country Club
Billy Horschel49Won in New Orleans last year, when he was 13th on money list
Matt Jones41Last man to make the field after Sunday’s playoff win in Houston
Chris Kirk53Hasn’t missed a cut in 12 PGA Tour starts this season
Chang-Woo LeeAmateur20-year-old from Korea won Asia-Pacific Amateur
Joost Luiten453-time winner on European Tour, including twice in 2013
Michael McCoyAmateur51-year-old from Iowa won 2013 US Mid-Amateur
Jordan NiebruggeAmateurCollege sophomore won US Amateur Public Links
Garrick PorteousAmateurBritish Amateur champion will turn pro after Masters
Patrick Reed23Three PGA Tour wins since August
Jordan Spieth13Finished fourth at last year’s Deutsche Bank Championship
Kevin Stadler60With Craig, becomes first father-son duo to play same Masters
Jimmy Walker243 wins since October, including this year at Pebble Beach

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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