Begging bowls out & the Masters

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AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the USA is presented with his green jacket by Chairman of Augusta National Hootie Johnson after winning the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia on April 14, 2002. (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

MARC POZZO

Zimbabwe were hoping to snap up a berth at the World Rugby Sevens Series last weekend in Hong Kong, however an underrated performance from them saw Ireland pick up that spot with a convincing win over hosts Hong Kong.

 The Cheetahs may be the African champions, but they arrived for the qualifying tournament lacking basic amenities and funding. Hong Kong rugby fans rallied round to fill the gap, raising money for essentials like meals and boots for the Zimbabwean players.

 Surely not, I ask? Are we really the poor relatives on tour? I am actually heart sore that our sport gets affected by this and we have to again rely on help from friends living in the diaspora. It’s a familiar story for Zimbabwe, who turned up with no kit in 2015 and came within a heartbeat of winning the qualifying tournament, losing narrowly to Russia in the final.

 This weekend, starting this evening our time, is the 83rd US Masters at Augusta. The year’s first major championship begins on Thursday at the famed course under the Georgia pines with Rory McIlroy making his 11th Augusta National start and fifth attempt to complete a Career Grand Slam by winning the Masters.

 The 29-year-old Northern Ireland star, a four-time major champion, has finished between fourth and 10th in each of the past five years at the Masters, sharing fifth last year, and is a Las Vegas oddsmakers pick to win this time.

 If he dons the green jacket on Sunday, McIlroy would become only the sixth player to have won each of the major titles at least once in his career, joining legends Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.

 Among those driving down Magnolia Lane to Augusta National’s clubhouse early was 22-year-old Aaron Wise, a South African-born American, who won last year’s PGA Byron Nelson title to claim his first Masters berth.

 Wise, whose family moved to the United States when he was three, was last year’s US PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. He missed the cut in three prior major starts as he and 16 other newcomers prepare for their Masters debuts.

 The biggest excitement is coming from defending champion Patrick Reed, who is now based out of the Champions Locker Room. The most exclusive meal of the week will be Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, where Reed serves the menu he has dreamt about having, since he was a teenager – ribeye steak, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach and creamed corn.

 Tiger Woods heads back to Augusta National to resume his pursuit of a 15th major championship with a firmer grip on the realities of his game and fitness than he could claim in his long-awaited Masters return last year.

 He won the first of his four Green Jackets there in historic style in 1997, completed the “Tiger Slam” there in 2001, successfully defended the crown in 2002, and won in dramatic style in 2005 with a chip-in to force a playoff in which he beat Chris DiMarco.

 In 2010, Woods chose the Masters for his return to action five months after humiliating revelations of infidelity that ended his marriage. But his appearance last year was his first since 2015, a return that followed questions whether debilitating back trouble and multiple surgeries would allow him ever to compete again at a high level.

 Such was the hype surrounding Woods’s comeback last year, fuelled by top-five finishes in two tune-up events, he went into the 2018 Masters a betting favourite – but didn’t manage to post a round under par until Sunday.

 He would go on to win the PGA Tour Championship last September, and has been in contention in the last two majors he played. Nevertheless, expectations are more moderate this year as Woods comes off a quarter-final exit at the WGC-Match Play that left him irked – but lifted him two places to 12th in the world rankings.

 Rory McIlroy – chasing a career Grand Slam and world number – and one Dustin Johnson are favoured ahead of Woods, the 43-year-old superstar trying to become just the fourth player to win a major title 11 years on from a Grand Slam victory.

 The most recent to do so was Ben Crenshaw when he added the 1995 Masters to his 1984 triumph at Augusta. Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 major titles once seemed firmly in Woods’s reach, has himself shown that age need not be a barrier at Augusta National, swooping for a victory in 1986 that made him, at 46, the oldest Masters winner and the second-oldest to win any major.

 Woods has been steady, if not spectacular this year. A neck issue that forced him out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was, Woods said, a problem that first flared at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles in February and worsened at the WGC-Mexico in Mexico City. He will no doubt be a contender but will need a good start in the first two rounds to make a charge at the weekend.

 There is also a number of other contenders. It’s the first time since the global rankings began in 1986 that the entire top 10 arrived at the year’s first major tournament and none of them had ever won the Masters, including new world number one Justin Rose of England.

 There’s a trio of top-10 Americans, with major wins lacking at Augusta National, including second-ranked Dustin Johnson, three-time major winner Brooks Koepka (fourth), and 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas (fifth).

 Three more US players seek their first major title: Bryson DeChambeau (sixth), Rickie Fowler (ninth) and Xander Schauffele (10th).

 Mix in the seventh-ranked reigning British Open champion, Francesco Molinari of Italy, and the sixth-ranked Spaniard Jon Rahm who shared fourth last year in only his second Masters start, and there’s an element of extra hunger under the Georgia pines this week.

 Being a betting man – I am going with Rickie Fowler, Francesco Molinari and Rory Mcllory to fight it out. Enjoy the Masters!