Commentary

Five Ryder Cup burning questions

Updated: September 27, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
By Kevin Maguire | ESPN.com

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Once every two years a group of 12 Americans squares off against a European side in a match-play event strictly for pride. So what's with the format and what should fans expect this week at the suburban Chicago layout that has hosted two PGA Championships (both won by Tiger Woods) and three U.S. Opens?

Well, a big ballpark for one thing, as Medinah Country Club weighs in at 7,658 yards as a par-72. As for those other burning questions? Here goes.

1. Will golf fans get to see Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy this week?

The answer is probably yes, but not the way you expect.

Who wouldn't want a Sunday singles showdown, mano a mano, with the final outcome of the Ryder Cup resting on who wins Tiger versus Rory? Except it probably won't happen.

Sorry folks. The simple fact is, because the Ryder Cup uses a blind draw where one captain puts his pairings up without knowing the other captain's groupings, there's only a slim chance that the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players will face off Sunday at Medinah. The more realistic possibility? A Woods/Steve Stricker pairing against McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in either foursomes (alternate shot) or four-balls (best-ball) on Friday or Saturday.

One can only hope the powers that be that run the Ryder Cup drop the blind draw -- like the Presidents Cup does -- and give the fans what they really want to see.

2. Which Tiger will walk the grounds at Medinah?

For much of the past three years since Woods' off-the-course scandal, the question often asked at golf tournaments was, which Tiger will we see this week? Would it be the pre-scandal Tiger who recorded 14 major wins and dominated fields just by showing up? Or would it be the one whose swing varied week-to-week, round-to-round, hole-to-hole?

Well, this week at the Ryder Cup, the question is the same with slightly different parameters. Will we see the Ryder Cup version of Tiger Woods who went 7-11-2 in his first four appearances in the biennial matches? Or the one who has gone 6-3-0 in his past two starts in the event?

The real answer is likely somewhere in between, with a strong chance that for the first time in his Ryder Cup career, Woods could nudge above .500. His record is 13-14-2 in six previous appearances, so clearly he's on the upswing. Add in the fact that a course like Medinah holds a special spot for Tiger -- he won a pair of PGA Championships at the venue -- and I'll go out on a limb and say at worst he'll finish the week at .500 overall.

3. Is McIlroy really a marked man at Medinah?

Heavy is the crown worn by the world No. 1 in the Ryder Cup. Just ask Woods.

McIlroy's countryman -- and likely playing partner all week, Graeme McDowell -- was referring to Woods earlier this week when asked why Tiger didn't fare better in his Ryder Cup career. Yet the Northern Irishman's analysis applies to McIlroy, too.

"I kind of liken it to playing Premiership football, the biggest teams, the Manchester Uniteds, the Liverpools, the Chelseas, the Arsenals," McDowell said. "Any lesser team that comes to play these guys, they have a tendency to raise their game, because it's a huge game for an underdog to play a Tiger Woods.

"And they get up for it. They are not expected to win. When expectation levels drop, game tends to improve. I think a guy who plays Tiger Woods, or a player of that caliber, and he doesn't expect to win, so he lets it all go and he plays out of his skin and gets the upset."

Woods took it on the chin for years at the Ryder Cup with heightened expectations. Might the same fate befall McIlroy?

4. Will Medinah's setup really favor the Americans?

Even though Davis Love III, as the host captain, can set up the course any way he likes, the answer is not likely.

Yes, Americans outnumber the Euros 3-2 in 300-yard drivers, but there's more to it because that only accounts for five of the 24 players in the event.

Players such as Bubba Watson, who averages a whopping 315.5 yards per drive on the PGA Tour in 2012, will grip it and rip it. So will Dustin Johnson (310.2, fourth) and Keegan Bradley (302.2, 14th). But the Europeans are equally as long at the top of their big-hitting lineup with the likes of Nicolas Colsaerts, who at 317.7 yards per drive leads the European Tour. Add in McIlroy (310.1 yards, fifth on the PGA Tour) and the golfers from the other side of the Atlantic can hold their own.

Where the real difference comes in is on the other side of the coin. Six Americans average less than 290 yards a drive -- that's half their team, by the way -- while only five European players fall into that category. So while the bombers will enjoy a relatively easier time on Medinah's longer holes, the bunters of the bunch will have to be extra sharp with their driving accuracy and greens in regulation if they want to win those precious points.

5. Can the crowds really make a difference in the outcome?

Yes, especially at a Ryder Cup. As anyone who has ever witnessed the pros play in person (or even on TV) will tell you, golf isn't like other sports. The crowds are polite -- save for the "you the man" guy who appears at seemingly every tournament. The fans really don't get overly boisterous -- putting aside the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

At the Ryder Cup, the golf clap is replaced by raucous applause and even a few -- dare I say -- boos. Think English Premiership soccer match meets high school basketball game of two archrivals.

At the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales, European fans around the first tee box on the morning of the Monday singles session were counting out loud how many times each American took a practice swing, just to try to get in their heads.

Did it work? No way to tell, but the Europeans did eke out a 1-point victory at Celtic Manor in the final match that day.

Part of Love's plan is to set up the course for birdies and eagles with the thought that the fans will celebrate more when the putts begin to drop, thus raising the spirits of the American side. In other words, the more red numbers this week the better for the red, white and blue.

Kevin Maguire is the senior golf editor for ESPN.com.