AUGUSTA, Ga. — At 24, Rory McIlroy has already won two major championships, is one back-nine meltdown from winning a green jacket and is ranked the No. 2 player in the world.
But even at such a tender age, he will feel like the old man in the group Thursday when he opens the 78th Masters playing with a couple of first-timers, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth.
“When I teed it up here for the first time, I had not won a PGA Tour event and I still was a pretty accomplished player,” said McIlroy, who is making his sixth Masters appearance. “I certainly was a little tentative in 2009, but they are aggressive players. They have shown that they can play well on big stages and we’ll see what they do over the next few days.”
Reed and Spieth are among the record 24 players who will make their first appearance at the Augusta National Golf Club, but they certainly don’t have the look of rookies. They have the mindset of a gunslinger and the notches in their belt to prove it.
Reed, 23, who played collegiately at nearby Augusta State, has won three PGA Tour events in the past eight months, including two already this season.
Spieth, 20, was the 2013 PGA Tour rookie of the year after winning the John Deere Classic, posting nine top-10 finishes and making the U.S. Presidents Cup team. In less than a year, he went from having no status on the PGA Tour to the 13th-ranked player in the world.
They are not alone. Jimmy Walker is 35, but is making his first appearance at Augusta National after winning three times this season — the Frys.com Open, Sony Open and the AT&T Pebble Beach.
They all have the belief that winning the Masters in their first appearance is not a far-fetched possibility, even though it hasn’t been done in 34 years.
“I don’t see why not,” said Walker, only the second player in 44 years to come to Augusta National with three victories already under his belt. “It is golf and you have to go out and execute and hit the shots. All these guys out here, they know what they are doing when they go to the golf course. They know how to prepare. Then it’s about getting it out of your head that this is what it is — it’s the Masters, it’s a major.”
Perhaps, but only three players have won the green jacket in their first appearance — Horton Smith (1934), Gene Sarazen (1935) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979). Since Zoeller’s victory 35 years ago, only two Masters rookies have ever finished second — Dan Pohl in 1982 and Jason Day in 2013.
It is easier said than done.
“I think times have changed where, you know, before you wouldn’t have a team around you back then, going back maybe 10, 15 years,” said Day, who has finished second and third in three Masters appearances. “You really couldn’t bounce things off people to really kind of see how you’re improving. These days, kids have a mental coach, strength coach, swing coach, maybe a short-game coach. I mean, they have so many people around them that are there in place to make sure that they are improving and competing and playing well.”
Whatever it is — talent, confidence, audacity — the amount of young players who come equipped to win on the PGA Tour is quite astounding.
No player better exemplifies that than Reed, who won the Humana Challenge in January and backed that up with an impressive victory in the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral. After that win, Reed brashly proclaimed himself one of the top five players in the world, even though his official ranking is 23rd.
“I’m very confident,” said Reed, who led Augusta State to back-to-back NCAA Division I championships after transferring from Georgia. “I try to treat it like it’s just another event. It’s just a mindset that I’ve always had, no matter what event it is. I try to get in the mindset that it’s just another event, it’s another golf course. Because if you start throwing stuff out of proportion, then you start getting the nerves up and you start doubting yourself and things start going south.”
Asked how often he starts to doubt himself on the golf course, Reed said, “Not very often.”
The number of Masters rookies kept growing because the past three events on the PGA Tour produced first-time winners — Matt Every (Arnold Palmer Invitational), Steven Bowditch (Valero Texas Open) and Matt Jones (Shell Houston Open).
What’s more, not only do Walker and Reed lead the FedEx Cup standings, five of the top eight players on the list will play in the Masters for the first time.
The odds of a Masters rookie winning the green jacket have never been better.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” Walker said. “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.”
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.