Watch for Mickelson, McIlroy to set tone for their teams

— -- CHASKA, Minn. -- At first, I was going to write a column proposing 10 questions entering this week's Ryder Cup.

Then I thought about maybe turning it into 10 predictions instead.

Like a golf fan with dual citizenship, I didn't know which way to lean.

So I opted for both. Here are 10 questions AND predictions going into this week's matches.

1. Question: Let's start with an easy one: Who are the most important players for each team?
There's a reason why the U.S. team has adopted the slogan "12 Strong" and not "1 Stronger than the Other 11." Everybody's points count the same this week. That said, there are a few guys who could spark some momentum a little bit more than their fellow teammates.

Prediction: He's no longer the best player on the U.S. team, and he might not play more than three matches, but if Phil Mickelson gets it going, his counterparts will feed off that. For the Europeans, it's all about Rory McIlroy. He's their compass; as Rory goes, so goes the team. Unless he completely stinks up the joint, expect five matches this week.

2. Question: Related follow-up -- Who will be the best players for each team?
Maybe these first two questions are the same thing, maybe there are some nuanced differences between them. It's my column; I'll opt for the latter.

Prediction: Let's not overthink this on the U.S. side. Dustin Johnson has been the world's best player this year and he was 3-0-0 the last time this event was held stateside. Easy call. And I'd love to go contrarian for the Europeans, but McIlroy is fresh off a win, he's happy and -- uh-oh -- happy learned how to putt.

3. Question: Which relative unknown will emerge as a breakout American star this week?
Oh, I love the idea of breaking up the U.S. and Europe into two separate questions, so we could stretch this thing out to a total of 10. That's some crafty column configuring right there.

Prediction: There really aren't any unknowns on the U.S. team. The two rookies -- Brooks Koepka and Ryan Moore -- have each played high-level golf on the PGA Tour for a while. That said, keep an eye on Moore, the last man in. Nothing tends to rattle him and he's been playing great golf lately.

4. Question: Same question, for the Europeans.
At least there are some options here. Darren Clarke's side comes in with six rookies, although that's never been the right term for them. Even though he's never played in a Ryder Cup before, it's difficult to call Masters champion Danny Willett a rookie. These guys have all played big-event golf before, obviously.

Prediction: Thomas Pieters seems like Nicolas Colsaerts 2.0 -- an improved version of the Belgian Bomber who posted nine birdies on Friday afternoon four years ago before running out of gas on the weekend. Expect him to win a few matches this week, possibly paired with a calming veteran influence. Honorable mention: Rafa Cabrera Bello.

5. Question: Wait a minute -- why doesn't this thing start on Thursday instead of making us wait until Friday?
I've never understood this. As much as the Ryder Cup is about competition and country, it's also all about the Benjamins. Starting on Thursday, even with just one session, would mean an extra day of television revenue, not to mention an extra day of stoking fan interest levels. As is, Thursday at the Ryder Cup is one of the most brutal days in golf. Let's get this thing moving already.

Prediction: It'll happen. Someday.

6. Question: Will the captains really make a difference this week? And if so, who's better?
I've finally seen the light. I used to compare Ryder Cup captains to first-base coaches: Basically, pat guys on the butt, point 'em in the right direction and hope you win. I changed my mind when Paul Azinger imparted strategic maneuvers to win in 2008, and my opinion was only reinforced two years ago, when Paul McGinley came prepared for every potential scenario.

Prediction: Much like the matches themselves, captains often seem even until they start playing, then some weaknesses emerge. Davis Love III and Darren Clarke appear equally up to the task, though if you want to give a slight advantage, it might go to Love for having the experience from four years ago.

7. Question: OK then, smart guy. Will the vice captains really make a difference?
Just because I need to hit my word count in this piece, here are all the vice captains for each side: Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Tom Lehman and, yes, Bubba Watson for the U.S.; Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, Thomas Bjorn and Paul Lawrie for Europe.

Prediction: Actually? Yeah, they will make a difference. That's because each of these captains is using his assistants much like the president leans on his cabinet. Neither Love nor Clarke is ruling with an iron fist this week. In some ways, the American vice captains might even wield greater power, as Love seems inclined to listen to their decisions -- especially those of Tiger.

8. Question: Which pre-tournament controversy will most affect the competition?
Mickelson dredged up old memories by criticizing 2004 captain Hal Sutton for pairing him with Woods; he later apologized. Pete Willett, brother of Danny, wrote a column calling American fans "a baying mob of imbeciles" among other things; Danny later apologized on his behalf.

Prediction: This is the kind of stuff that makes headlines when there's so much lead time before the event and no golf being played. Neither controversy should have much of an effect on the outcome, though don't be surprised if Willett -- apology or not -- hears more than his share of jeers from the home crowd, especially during afternoon matches when the gallery has, uh, partaken in the refreshments.

9. Question: What will be the key stat this week?
Conventional wisdom says putting wins these things. Conventional wisdom is also the kind of thing which we took for granted before analytics showed us what really mattered. Love and his vice captains have taken a deep dive into the numbers of the last few Ryder Cups and have spent the last few months crunching the numbers.

Prediction: Sure, putting matters. Putting always matters. But keep a close eye on this one: Four years ago, the U.S. played the par-5 holes in a collective 52-28-94 and nearly -- maybe should've -- won. Two years ago, the team played these holes in 27-51-58 and got clobbered. On a long golf course (7,628 yards) with the traditional four par-5 layout, expect performance on these holes to be a great determining factor in the overall result.

10. Question: Forget all that other stuff. Who's gonna win this thing?
You're excused if you skipped everything above and scrolled straight to here. This is what you want to know; this is what everyone wants to know. Can the U.S. team, after losing the past three Ryder Cups and six of the past seven, finally win again?

Prediction: Playing on home soil, with a team ranked higher collectively and -- most importantly -- inspired by the spirit of Arnold Palmer, it feels like everything is set up for a U.S. victory. I'll put it this way: If they don't win this week, with all of those factors at play, it could be a long time before they do. But it'll happen. After years of in-fighting, blame-deflecting and task-forcing, the U.S. will win this week ... finally.