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Monday February 8th, 2016 1:57PM

Masters primed for a newcomer in a green jacket

By The Associated Press
Fuzzy Zoeller has lost track of how many interviews he's given before the Masters, surprising for a guy who plays a limited schedule on the Champions Tour and stopped competing at Augusta National five years ago.

He doesn't need to follow golf to figure out what's going on.

Jordan Spieth started his rookie season without a card, finished at No. 10 on the money list, became the youngest American to play in the Presidents Cup and ended his remarkable year at No. 22 in the world. This will be his first Masters. Patrick Reed won three times in seven months, including a World Golf Championship, and told a national television audience he felt he was among the top five in the world. This will be his first major.

They are joined by plenty of others, most of them in the top 50 in the world, who until now have only seen the Masters outside the ropes or in front of a television.

And that's why Zoeller's phone keeps ringing.

"I think I've done a hundred interviews now," Zoeller said with a laugh. "Hell, I don't have any answers."

There's really only one question: Why has it been 35 years since a Masters rookie left town with a green jacket?

That was Zoeller in 1979. He leapt in the air when his birdie putt dropped on the second playoff hole at No. 11 to join Gene Sarazen (1935) and inaugural winner Horton Smith (1934) as the only players to win at Augusta on their first attempt.

"All the talent that has gone through that marvelous place, it's kind of weird that it hasn't happened," Zoeller said.

Dan Pohl almost did it three years later. He made up a six-shot deficit on Craig Stadler, only to miss a 6-foot par putt on the first playoff hole in 1982. John Huston played in the final group in 1990 in his Masters debut, two shots behind Raymond Floyd. Nick Faldo beat Floyd in a playoff. Huston shot 75 and tied for third.

Most recently, Jason Day had a share of the clubhouse lead with Adam Scott in 2011 until Charl Schwartzel birdied his last four holes to win by two.

Is this the year? The odds have never been so stacked.

Spieth and Reed are among 23 players in the Masters for the first time, which accounts for nearly 25 percent of the field. That includes six amateurs, as always. It also includes 20 percent of the world's top 50 players.

"I don't think it's out of the question to win," said Spieth, who doesn't turn 21 until July. "If my game stacks up and I catch the right breaks, then sure. I don't see why not. I've been playing against these guys for a year now, so I feel comfortable."

Harris English is getting as much attention as anyone, and knows the course - maybe not the way it is for the Masters - better than most rookies. He played college golf at Georgia, so the Bulldogs played Augusta National once a year.

English won a Web.com Tour event when he was still in college. He has won twice since the Masters last year, at the St. Jude Classic and in Mexico at the end of last year. The highest praise comes from other players, so it was intriguing when Graeme McDowell walked to the back of the 17th green at Bay Hill, nodded toward English, raised his eyebrows and said, "This boy can play."

The 24-year-old English drips with Southern manners, pays due respect to stars on tour and then sets a high standard for himself. It helped, no doubt, watching college teammates Russell Henley win in his rookie debut on the PGA Tour, and Reed take on the world in winning a World Golf Championship at Doral.

"I don't know if this group knows how to win more," English said of his fellow Masters rookies. "I don't know what it is. It just seems like guys coming out of college are more prepared. All these guys know how to win and seem to not be scared of the veterans."

Of the 17 professional rookies, 11 of them won on the PGA Tour last year. Among the exceptions were Victor Dubuisson of France and Stephen Gallacher of Scotland, who had two of the biggest wins on the European Tour. Dubuisson won handily in the Turkish Airlines Open last year, where Tiger Woods finished third. Gallacher won the Dubai Desert Classic, a tournament that featured Woods and Rory McIlroy, by making seven birdies and an eagle on the back nine Saturday to take the lead.

Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson all played for the first time as U.S. Amateur champions. Woods tied for 41st. Mickelson opened with a 69 and tied for 46th. Nicklaus tied for 13th, and then two months later nearly won the U.S. Open as an amateur.

"I think the learning curve at Augusta is steep - always steep," Justin Rose said. "I think the general rule is you make the cut the first time going to Augusta, that's a successful performance. Certainly that's how it was framed in my mind in 2003."

Times have changed.

The most abrasive of the bunch is Reed, a portly 23-year-old with a great short game and no fear. He became the youngest winner of a World Golf Championship - wearing black pants and a red shirt while playing in the group behind Woods - and saw no reason why he couldn't win whatever he played.

"Whoever shows up at an event nowadays has a chance to win," Reed said. "Any week, it seems like, whether it's a veteran or whether it's a rookie, if they're playing great golf they're going to win the event."
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