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In A Week Dedicated To The Greatest Ever, Superstars Enter Memorial With Plenty Of Questions

In a week that prompts golf fans to look back on the greatest who ever lived, the 2012 Memorial will be yet another gauge for a crop of golfers considered the heir apparent or next in line.

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Ohio is lucky enough to host two of the premier stops on the PGA Tour in the Memorial Tournament and the WGC at Firestone. This week, the Tour returns to Muirfield Village with yet another remarkably deep field. But the week has become more than just one of the most competitive tournaments on Tour, it's also become an annual celebration of the most successful golfer in history.

Golf World Senior Writer Ron Sirak is often quoted as saying, "The greatest debt of gratitude that we owe to Tiger Woods is that he reminded an entire generation who didn't see Jack Nicklaus play, how great Jack Nicklaus was." The last two weeks on Tour were spent at the tournaments hosted and made famous by two other legends, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Many golf historians lament the decline in prestige for those two tournaments since their namesakes have passed. Jack's playing days have long since passed, and his public appearances are becoming few and far between. The Bear comes out during Masters week as an honorary starter, and then takes center stage again during the Memorial.

Nicklaus's design masterpiece, Muirfield Village, was awarded the 2013 Presidents Cup, making it the host of all three major cup events (including the Ryder and Solheim) and he's stated in the past that it will likely be his last major public appearance in golf. That leaves a dwindling few opportunities and it's one of the reasons the 2012 Memorial should be so important to golf fans everywhere.

And that's why the top golfers in the world almost never turn down the invitation to Jack's place. It's one of the few opportunities they have to spend time with the icon. They come trying to win a prestigious tournament on one of the best courses on Tour, but they also show up as an homage.

It's once again a loaded field, featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, and the returns of Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. It's typically the final tune-up for the U.S. Open, and plenty of the most renowned players in the world have a lot to work on this week.

This used to be one of Tiger's favorite stops on Tour, winning at Muirfield three years in a row from 1999 to 2001. He won it again in 2009 but as we all know, everything's different now. Woods enters the week still looking for answers, nosediving after his win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Coming off the worst Masters finish of his career, Woods spent the month of May missing the cut at Quail Hollow and meandering through four rounds at The Players as "just another guy." With his continued swing struggles and his bout fighting "old patterns," it's unlikely he's in any kind of form to challenge at Olympic in two weeks. Some signs of improvement at the Memorial, where he should be comfortable, could at least provide some hope for Woods heading into the U.S. Open.

As Woods was once termed the "heir apparent" to the tournament host, Rory McIlroy has been tabbed as the likely next heir since his rousing win at Congressional nearly a year ago. But Rory also enters the week scrambling and looking to get his game back in shape. After another MC at Sawgrass, a course where he's always struggled, McIlroy went across the pond and also failed to reach the weekend at the BMW Championship. It was a rough go at Wentworth, and Rory was seen throwing his club in a moment of frustration during his first round 74. Like Woods, he's another superstar who needs to start trending in the other direction if he has hopes of repeating a national championship.

And then there's Bubba, the popular Tour personality who vaulted into national stardom with his win at The Masters. Watson, who adopted a child the week of his win at Augusta, has not played on Tour in over a month. Prior to this week at Muirfield, he was last seen tweeting "not missing golf at all" which provoked some controversy in golf circles. Was Watson, who spent plenty of time in New York City doing media rounds after his Masters win, losing his desire to work on his game now that he had captured the biggest prize in golf? There's no need to question his choice to spend more time with his family, and Watson certainly needed to take a breather after his signature moment. But after skipping The Players and the lengthy absence from Tour, it will be intriguing to see where his game and head are at heading into the U.S. Open.

With some of the biggest names entering the week with question marks, two stars who battled here two years ago may once again be the favorites. Englishman Justin Rose picked up his first American Tour win at Muirfield Village in 2010, which propelled him to a big summer in the States. Rose now enters the 2012 Memorial coming off a WGC win and top ten at The Masters this spring. The man he edged out for the victory two years ago, Rickie Fowler, finally captured his first win earlier this month at Quail Hollow. The 2010 Memorial was Fowler's coming out party and he lead for a majority of the tournament until Rose passed him during the final round. There were a series of near-misses over the past two years for the Oklahoma State product and he finally broke through for that first win this month. Both Rose and Fowler could once again find themselves in another Sunday battle in Columbus.

But regardless of who's battling on Sunday, the focus of the week will still be Jack. As time moves on and newer generations take the headlines, the Memorial forces golf to look back. Whether it's an heir apparent whose greatness is illuminated against the standard of the Golden Bear, or a first timer, the week of the Memorial is always about remembering and celebrating the greatest golfer who ever lived.

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.