Jordan Spieth stood on the practice green and turned his head back and forth, paying close attention to the two men as they spoke. To his right: Ben Crenshaw. On his left: Tom Watson.
Spieth, a Masters rookie, hung on every word of this pair of past champions and Hall of Famers. “It was just great to watch those two kind of talk to each other, two of the game’s legends,” Spieth said.
Spieth is one of a record 24 players making their first Masters appearances this year, and all of them want to savor every step they take across Augusta National. They also possess enough firepower for one of them to become the first rookie to win a Green Jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller accomplished the feat in 1979.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” said Jimmy Walker, another prominent Masters rookie. “I’m here to play well and I’m here to have a chance. I want to win and I think everybody here wants to do that. So why couldn’t a rookie win again?”
“I don’t see that it’s a big deal at all,” said Spieth, 20, who will be grouped with Patrick Reed and two-time major champion Rory McIlroy for the first two rounds. “I think that if I get my game ready, then it’s possible.”
Walker, 35, has won three PGA Tour events this season. Reed, 23, also owns three PGA Tour titles since August. The world rankings of this year's Masters rookies range from Spieth at No. 13 to Derek Ernst at No. 168.
Fourteen of them are ranked in the top 60, and those 14 players have accounted for a combined 24 victories on the PGA and European tours. Three players from Georgia are among the first-timers and among them they have four victories in 2014. Reed has two, and Harris English and Chris Kirk have one apiece.
Talented first-timers aren’t to be counted out, said Walker, who slipped into the third-person when, in the case of the Masters, he also could have been talking about himself. “They know how to prepare. They know what they’re doing when they go to the golf course,” Walker said. “They are good at going out and picking a golf course apart. Then it’s about getting it out of your head that this is the Masters, it’s a major...”
The previous record for the number of rookies at Augusta was set in 1935, the second year of the Tournament, when there were 23 players making their first appearance -- including the eventual winner, Gene Sarazen. In 1962 and ’66, there were 22 first-time players.
This rookie class includes 18 professionals and six amateurs, comprising nearly a quarter of the 97-player field.
They won’t necessarily be awestruck when their names are called at the first tee on Thursday. “It 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.”
Zoeller and Sarazen are the only rookie champions, yet only six have been able to finish second, the most recent being Jason Day in 2011 and before him Dan Pohl in 1982. In all, 28 first-time players have finished in the top five in 77 previous Masters.
Day authored the lowest score of a runner-up, 12-under 276, three years ago when he tied for second, two strokes behind Charl Schwartzel. Now 26, Day is making only his fourth Masters start.
And he’s already seen enough to believe rookies have a much better chance to win at Augusta National than in the past decade or so.
“These days, kids have a mental coach, strength coach, swing coach, maybe a short game coach,” Day said. “They have so many people around them that are in place to make sure that they are improving and competing and playing well.
“They are a lot more confident coming out and playing in their first events. They are coming out stronger and faster. Their game is a lot tighter and every year that goes by, they are just tougher to compete and play against.”