Burning Questions Ahead of the 2013 Presidents Cup

James McMahonContributor ISeptember 30, 2013

Burning Questions Ahead of the 2013 Presidents Cup

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    The 10th Presidents Cup gets underway Thursday as the top American golfers look to continue their dominance over their international counterparts at Muirfield Village.

    On paper, the United States has the talent, experience and depth advantage over the international team, which has won only once in the previous nine editions of the competition.

    Like the Ryder Cup, however, anything can happen in the pressure-packed environment of a Presidents Cup, and no one honestly knows what to expect at Muirfield this week.

    In fact, there are a bevy of significant questions hovering over the event as the two teams make their final preparations at Jack Nicklaus’ storied and challenging layout.

    Can the internationals overcome their lack of experience? Are U.S. captain Fred Couples’ two best players in top form for the event? How much of a home-field advantage do the Yanks have at Muirfield?

    Those are just some of the unknowns that absolutely beg answers as the latest edition of this growing rivalry prepares to launch later this week.

    We can’t cover them all, but here are some of the hottest questions surrounding the Presidents Cup as the action nears its teeing off point.

Can Seven Rookies Lead Internationals to Upset at Muirfield?

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    If the internationals have any hope of breaking the United States’ strangle hold on the Presidents Cup this weekend, it will have to rely on seven rookies to make it happen.

    Five first-time players qualified for the International team and Nick Price then curiously added two more newbies to the roster with his captain’s picks.

    The end result is a relatively inexperienced team that is charged with toppling a deep and experienced American squad on its home turf.

    If that is to happen, established players like Louis Oosthuizen, Brendon de Jonge and Graham DeLaet need sterling debuts in the competition.

    Likewise, Price will need a couple of unexpectedly strong performances from the likes of Richard Sterne and Branden Grace if his team is going to win the Presidents Cup for the first time since 1998.

    Considering recent history at Muirfield, that may be expecting too much. Of the rookies, only DeLaet finished in the top 25 in the Memorial Tournament earlier this year, and the next closest at Jack Nicklaus’ course was Marc Leishman, who posted a tie for 41st.

    From an experience standpoint, the deck is stacked against the internationals, and the majority of its roster will have to learn on the fly this weekend if an upset is going to happen.

Can Tiger Get Right for Presidents Cup?

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    In the first half of the 2013 season, Tiger was playing his finest golf since he last won a major championship in 2008.

    Since mid-May, however, it’s been a roller-coaster ride full of more dips than rises for the 2013 Player of the Year.

    In fact, outside of his fifth win of the season at the Bridgestone Invitational in August, Woods has struggled mightily in the final four months of the season and is a major question mark heading into his eighth Presidents Cup.

    There’s no denying Tiger’s importance to the United States team, which on paper appears stronger than the internationals. Yet based on recent performances, the 14-time major champion is struggling with his putter, can’t get right with his driver and appeared to be running on fumes in going 0-for-4 in the FedEx Cup playoffs.

    That said, Woods has been a rock for the United States team, going 20-14-1 in his previous seven appearances. Additionally, Tiger has been dominant at Muirfield, winning five times on Jack's course, including his most recent victory in 2012.

    Expect that Tiger to show up this week, especially if Couples pairs him with good friend and putting mentor Steve Stricker. If that indeed happens, the Americans will be extremely difficult to beat yet again.

Will Adam Scott Lead Internationals to Presidents Cup Upset?

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    There’s no question Adam Scott is the most talented member of this year’s international team.

    The larger issue, however, is whether the Aussie is prepared to be the leader the inexperienced squad needs to upset the Americans at Muirfield.

    The reigning Masters champion is coming off a career year and closed the season playing well. He also finished in a tie for 13th at The Memorial back in May, so he understands how to play Nicklaus’ course.

    Given that, the internationals have reason to believe their top star is ready to assume the inside-the-ropes leadership role that will be crucial to an upset bid this weekend.

    Scott isn't likely to energize his team with fist pumps and high fives, but he has the opportunity to lead by example with strong performances and quiet encouragement that better fits his personality.

    If he does that, the internationals’ likelihood of competing deep into Sunday’s singles is raised significantly.

    He will, however, need to improve upon a rocky 2011 showing in which he contributed only two points to the international cause while finishing a disappointing 2-3.

    If Scott repeats that performance, Price has few other players to rely on in terms of lifting his team when the pressure ramps up at Muirfield.

    But if he answers the call, the talented golfer has the ability to lift the internationals to a surprising result when it’s all said and done on Sunday.

Is There Anything Left in Phil Mickelson's Tank?

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    Phil Mickelson’s emotional Open Championship victory was easily the highlight of the 2013 season. His play since that Muirfield rally, however, has been anything but inspiring.

    The question now is whether the passion and nationalistic energy created by the Presidents Cup will get Mickelson refocused and energized enough to help the United States to its eight title in 10 tries.

    Lefty, who will likely be paired with 2012 Ryder Cup partner Keegan Bradley at least a couple of times at Muirfield Village, has a winning Presidents Cup record at 18-14-1 and brings great character and leadership to the U.S. squad. He is the only American to compete on every team since the competition began back in 1994.

    That said, Mickelson appeared to be running on fumes since winning his first Claret Jug, and recently suggested he might scale back his schedule moving forward. In his final six tournaments of the year, the five-time major winner managed just one top-10 finish and was never a factor at the PGA Championship back in August.

    The week off following the Tour Championship was much needed, and Couples hopes his star player can regain his shot-making magic and smooth putting stroke in time to help lift the United States to yet another victory in the international battle.

    If he does, the Americans will be an extremely difficult team to beat. If not, the challenge facing the internationals will be that much easier.

Is Louis Oosthuizen Healthy Enough to Contribute at Muirfield?

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    Of all its rookies, there is none more important to the fate of the international team than Oosthuizen.

    Given that, the health of the former British Open champion is a chief concern for Price heading into this weekend’s competition.

    The talented South African has battled both neck and back issues for the majority of the 2013 season. In fact, Oosthuizen was forced to withdraw from both the U.S. Open and British Open due to injury and failed to play in the PGA Championship altogether.

    After being relegated to the sidelines since his early exit from the British Open, the 29th-ranked player in the world played this past weekend at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship to mixed results. Oosthuizen appeared healthy but missed the 54-hole cut in the European Tour event at five under.

    Considering it was his only action since July, there is sure to be some rust and endurance issues to Oosthuizen’s game. Given that, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Price limit his action when he can.

    That said, the internationals need the talented golfer to be a positive force at Muirfield if they are going to counter the Americans' depth advantage.

    If his neck and back cooperate, there’s a strong likelihood Oosthuizen will do just that.

Is Jordan Spieth Prepared for Presidents Cup Spotlight?

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    While a number of talented and more experienced players were passed over, there’s no denying that Jordan Spieth was deserving of the captain’s pick that earned him a spot on the United States team.

    What’s left to discover now is whether the talented 20-year-old can handle the pressure of playing a key role in the Presidents Cup with the world watching and teammates counting on him.

    If his track record during a historic rookie season on the PGA Tour is any indication, Spieth is more than up to the task.

    After starting the year without a tour card and relying on sponsor’s exemptions, the Texan has been off-the-charts good. He became the youngest golfer to win a PGA Tour event in 82 years at the John Deere Classic and managed three other second-place finishes along the way.

    As a result, Spieth became the first rookie to ever make the Presidents Cup when Couples added him to the team, and by all accounts, he will be a key player in the United States’ efforts to maintain its death grip on the competition.

    Given all he’s accomplished this year and just how much he’s been welcomed onto the team by the veterans, there’s little reason to doubt Spieth will continue his magical season at Muirfield this week.

Will Muirfield Be International Team's Undoing?

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    The internationals have never beaten the United States on this side of the Atlantic, and if past history is any indication, Muirfield is not the best place for the visitors to turn that around.

    While a number of Americans, led by Tiger, have strong histories on Nicklaus’ course, the internationals have precious few players who have any success to speak of on the famed layout. In fact, of the 12, only Els has won the Memorial Tournament on the challenging layout.

    It gets real ugly after that for Price’s troops. Angel Cabrera avoids the course like the plague, Oosthuizen missed the cut in his only start and Hideki Matsuyama has never even teed it up at Muirfield.

    By contrast, a trio of the United States' top players has won the past three Memorials and others have a decent track record at the Buckeye State venue.

    Matt Kuchar won the Memorial earlier this year, Woods captured his fifth title last year and Stricker triumphed in 2011. Additionally, Mickelson has three top-10s at Muirfield and both Bill Haas and Zach Johnson have top-five finishes on their resumes.

    Home-field advantage is one thing, but the Americans’ comfort level at Muirfield is going to make an already-difficult task for the internationals all the more daunting this weekend.

Can United States' Dominance Continue?

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    While the Americans have struggled significantly against their European counterparts in the Ryder Cup, they've completely dominated their international opponents in the brief history of the Presidents Cup.

    The United States has won four straight matches since a tie in 2003, and those contests really haven't been close. The question then is how long the Americans can continue their Presidents Cup dominance considering the volatile and passionate nature of international match play competition.

    Given the Yanks' advantage in experience and depth this time around, the reality is it will likely extend at least through the 10th installment of the event.

    In addition to seven rookies, the internationals have two other golfers who have made only one start in the competition. By contrast, the United States has just four rookies and is led by two of the world’s top three players—Woods and Mickelson.

    That advantage is magnified by the fact the Presidents Cup format demands captains play all of the players in two of the five sessions and 10 of the 12 golfers in the remaining three. That will make it difficult for Price to hide inexperienced or struggling golfers and will test the depth and energy of his young team in enemy territory at Muirfield.

    Bottom line, the internationals will eventually get a second Presidents Cup win; it’s just really hard to imagine the Americans' run ending this time around.