AUGUSTA, GA. — One-quarter of the field for the Masters Tournament drove down Magnolia Lane for the first time this week as contestants.


“It was amazing,” said Patrick Reed. “I wanted to reverse and go again.”

That symbolic drive through Gate 2 of the Augusta National Golf Club is one of the moments every first-time player cherishes. And there are more of them this week to experience that than at any time in tournament history.

When Matt Jones of Australia chipped in for birdie on the first playoff hole last week to beat Matt Kuchar in the Shell Houston Open, Jones became the 24th first-time player at Augusta this week, breaking the record of 23 in 1935 — the second year of the tournament.

The most Masters rookies in recent years were 20 first-time players in 2008 and 2011. With the large number of players who won PGA Tour events as their ticket to the Masters, the number increased, making it statistically more likely that someone will become the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win at Augusta in his first start.

They’re not lacking for optimism or even confidence that they can make it a memorable Masters. When asked if a rookie winner can emerge as the winner for the first time in 35 years, most of them were unhesitant in their answers.

“I don’t see why not,” said Jimmy Walker, the Tour’s only three-time winner in the 2013-2014 season who qualified for the invitation when he won the Open last fall. “It is golf, and you have to go out and execute and hit the shots. I don’t think it’s out of the question. I’m here to play well, and I’m here to have a chance. ... So why couldn’t a rookie win again.”

“Whoever is playing their best golf is going to win,” said Reed, a former member of nearby Georgia Regents University. “Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or you’ve played here 50 times.”

“If you’re hitting the ball well enough and you’re putting well enough, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing,” said Jordan Spieth, who has risen from no status on the PGA Tour at the beginning of the 2013 season to 13th in the world this week. “I think there’s an emphasis [this week] on first-time winners, or the lack or first-time winners, but I don’t see that it’s a big deal at all.”

Listening or reading about some of the comments are some veterans, some of whom have won the Masters and some who haven’t.

Their cautionary tale to the first-timers is that regardless of how well they’re playing, the pressure of a weekend at Augusta National can squeeze the life out of cockiness.

Trying to tamp down the excitement, as difficult as that might sound, is also advisable.

“My first was 2005, and we had a 36-hole Monday finish in Atlanta,” said 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson of St. Simons Island, Ga. “I didn’t get here until Tuesday and to say I was a deer in the headlights is an understatement. I had no idea what was going on.”

“Pace yourself,” advised Ponte Vedra Beach resident Jim Furyk. “[In his first Masters, in 1996] I hit too many balls. I spent too much time on the range, the chipping green, the putting green, played 18 ... just too excited to be here. But by the time Thursday comes around, you’re already somewhat worn out. By Sunday, you’re running on fumes.”

The first-time players have picked up on one key component in getting ready to tackle Augusta National for the first time: lean on the veterans.

Spieth was seen at length on the putting green Tuesday with past champions Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. Reed played with Rory McIlroy, and will again Thursday and Friday when the tournament begins. Jones has a Wednesday practice round scheduled with defending champion and fellow Aussie Adam Scott.

Johnson said he picked up valuable information in his first-ever Masters round when he played with 1998 champion Mark O’Meara. Johnson shot 81 and O’Meara 72.

“I hit it as well as he did, and it was humbling,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t so much of where he hit it but where he missed it, and the putts and chips he made. That kind of knowledge rubs off.”

The Augusta National competition committee also historically tries to put rookie players in groupings with veterans. Spieth will join Reed in playing with McIlroy, who is in his sixth Masters. Kevin Stadler is playing with 1991 champion Ian Woosnam. Jonas Blixt of Jacksonville Beach is playing with Crenshaw. Billy Horschel of Ponte Vedra Beach has Watson for a playing partner. Matt Every of Jacksonville Beach drew 2003 champion Mike Weir.

“I got to play my first two rounds with Fuzzy Zoeller, and he was whistling off the first tee,” said Scott, who will play with U.S. Amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick. “I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but it was certainly a little more light-hearted than I thought. He’s [Fitzpatrick] got to enjoy the experience and hopefully it inspires him to keep working hard and come back, many many times.”

Trying to handicap which of the first-time players has the best chance to contend is difficult. After all, who saw Frank Urban Zoeller coming?

Johnson said one or more of them in the mix on Sunday shouldn’t come as any great shock.

“They’re all really good, so I’m hoping they don’t play somehow ... WD, DQ,” he said in a kidding fashion. “Any one of them would not surprise me, they’re so talented.

Garry Smits: (904) 359-4362