By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The Masters has been won by only three debutants since the tournament was launched in 1934 but Jonas Blixt, Kevin Stadler and Jimmy Walker made impressive starts on Thursday to raise expectations of a fourth.
First-timers Stadler, Blixt and Walker all recorded two-under-par 70s in the opening round to climb into early contention for the year's first major, taking advantage of relatively calm morning conditions in dazzling sunshine.
Stadler, whose father Craig clinched the 1982 Masters, played solid golf in the second group of the day to hold the clubhouse lead after mixing four birdies with two bogeys at Augusta National.
The burly American was joined soon after by Swede Blixt, who had teed off one group behind, before Walker also got to two under with a sizzling run of four consecutive birdies from the par-five 14th.
"I struck the ball fairly well, but didn't drive it as well as I had the last couple days," Stadler told reporters after coping well with the fast-running, heavily contoured greens on his Masters debut.
"I kept it in play, hit a bunch of greens and kept away from the three-putts, so it was a good day. I was a little bit nervous on the (first) tee, but that's got to be expected, I would say."
Stadler, who booked his place at the Masters by winning his maiden PGA Tour title at the Phoenix Open in February, relished the course conditions on Thursday in the knowledge that the hilly layout would firm up over the next three days.
"It was perfect today, and I assume it's just going to get harder and harder and harder," said the 34-year-old. "The greens were holding just enough and they were very quick.
"They had a few inches of rain a few days ago, so it's kind of scary. It's going to get tough over the weekend."
Florida-based Blixt, a double winner on the PGA Tour, said he felt a little nervous on the first tee but was in an upbeat mood after ending the opening round with a haul of six birdies and four dropped shots.
"I just need to play smart and aggressive," smiled the 29-year-old Swede, who finished fourth at last year's PGA Championship after his second career start at a major.
"At Augusta, you never know what's going to happen. I feel like I can shoot really low out here, and I really like the golf course the way it sets up.
"But you could also have a really awful day when you catch all the bad breaks. But it's wonderful to just be here. It's such a great surrounding and acoustics and everything. It's a cool, special feeling."
American Fuzzy Zoeller was the last Augusta National rookie to claim the coveted green jacket, in 1979, but that could change this week given the extraordinary quality of first-timers in the field of 97.
Of the 24 first-timers who qualified for the opening major of the year, 18 were professionals and they included Walker, a triple champion on the 2013-14 PGA Tour, and fellow American Patrick Reed, a double winner this season.
"Guys know how to play golf and it's a matter of going out and doing your homework and knowing where to hit and not where to hit it," said Walker, who had to contend with swirling winds on the back nine. "I did a pretty good job of that today.
"I definitely felt a few jitters on the first green. I had a long putt up the hill. But I hit a good putt and settled in. It was great."
The only other first-time players to clinch the Masters were the inaugural champion Horton Smith, in 1934, and Gene Sarazen, the winner in 1935.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)