Strong emotions for Masters first-timers

In the days before next month's Masters Tournament, the world's best players will scramble to complete last-minute cram sessions for golf's ultimate final exam. Unlike their practice rounds in recent months, however, this will no longer be a solitary pursuit, as patrons will line the gallery ropes in an effort to catch a snapshot -- both mentally and literally -- of the next green jacket winner.

Then again, those in the paying audience won't be the only people at Augusta National Golf Club toting cameras throughout the hallowed grounds.

"I'll probably take a picture of myself," says first-time participant Ken Duke, "just to make sure that I'm really there."

On the first tee? Walking across the Hogan Bridge? Coming up the 18th fairway?

"Who knows?" he says with a laugh. "Just … anywhere."

As if we ever needed to differentiate the Masters from every other tournament on the annual schedule, allow this anecdote to serve as a prime example that the year's first major has a special place in the hearts of competitors.

No, longtime professional golfers don't make a habit of having photos taken of themselves at every PGA Tour venue, and yes, the green-hued background that frames the world's most famous golf course really does provoke a certain affinity from those who make their living in perpetually posh surroundings.

That goes double for players who will make their initial pilgrimage down Magnolia Lane to compete in this year's Masters. Currently, 16 competitors will make their debut performance at Augusta -- and without a doubt, there will be 16 smiling faces and nervous stomachs when they arrive on the scene a few weeks from now.

"I've been dreaming about this ever since I was a kid," says Ryuji Imada, who was born in Japan. "One of the reasons why I came over here at the age of 14 is because I wanted to play in the Masters. So to finally have the dream come true is an exciting thing."

While Imada will make his debut at the age of 32, a decade into his professional career, fellow countryman Ryo Ishikawa, 17, has received a special invitation -- though the chance to compete on such a grand stage doesn't mean any less.

"The broadcasts of the Masters in Japan start at like 4:00, 4:30, which is very early, but I woke up every morning and watched the program before I went to school," says the cleverly nicknamed Bashful Prince. "So I'm happy about this, but it feels kind of strange for me to play the Masters, because the Masters was only a TV thing for me."

That's a common refrain for those who have witnessed the tournament from afar for so many years without being included in the field.

And yet, that time spent eyeballing the television coverage from the comforts of a couch won't all go for naught. In fact, it may actually serve as beneficial to the first-timers.

"It's like a course you already think you've played because you've seen it on TV for so many years," says John Merrick, who qualified via his T-6 result at last year's U.S. Open. "I remember just seeing how hilly it was in real life. On TV, it looks flat, but in real life, it's so hilly; there's so much elevation change. You really have to, like everyone says, work the ball into the areas, you have to shoot for different places. It's not really flag-hunting."

Duke agreed with Merrick's assessment.

"You get a chance to watch it all the time on TV, and we're just excited about going," says Duke, who had never seen the course in person until a few recent practice rounds. "It's all about the greens. They give you room to drive it, which is great, but you've got to be sharp on your iron shots; you've got to watch where you put it. The greens are so fast."

Sure, every player in the field will strategize his way around Augusta National in hopes of achieving the ultimate goal -- having the green jacket draped around his shoulders Sunday afternoon. Unlike most other events, there is a just-happy-to-be-here sense of accomplishment from the first-time participants, with an emphasis on enjoying the ride -- no matter what.

From Dustin Johnson ("It's going to be unbelievable. It's just going to be awesome. I can't wait") to Oliver Wilson ("I am looking forward to it. It is my first time there, and I'm sure it will be a lot of fun") to U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Steve Wilson ("It's going to be something. I don't even know the words to explain it"), there is a consensus among these players that the journey is more important than the result.

Or as Imada maintains, "I'm going to enjoy the whole week -- whether I play good or bad."

Make no mistake, though: When each of this current Sweet 16 group of players making their Masters debuts hears his name called on the first tee April 9 and stands over that initial tee shot, expect the butterflies to be fluttering with full force.

"Oh, absolutely. Definitely," Merrick says. "I think there's something wrong if the blood's not flowing."

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.