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Masters could be pivotal for Phil Mickelson’s Olympic hopes

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Currently out of the Olympic field, Phil Mickelson can jump back into contention at the Masters, where he has a track record of strong finishes.

The Masters is the penultimate major before the Olympic men’s golf field will be determined based on world ranking.

The top four U.S. men in the Official World Golf Ranking top 15 on July 11 (the Monday before the British Open) qualify for the first U.S. Olympic golf team in 112 years.

World No. 2 Jordan Spieth, No. 4 Bubba Watson and No. 5 Rickie Fowler are in driver seats for three of the four spots, as they have been since Fowler won the May 2015 Players Championship.

The next-highest ranked American is Dustin Johnson at No. 8, followed by Patrick Reed at No. 10.

Upward movers since Jan. 1 have been veterans Brandt Snedeker (rising from No. 49 to No. 17) and Mickelson (from No. 34 to No. 18).

Since the two-year, rolling world ranking weighs the most recent results the heaviest, Snedeker and Mickelson may have a leg up on No. 16 Zach Johnson and No. 19 Brooks Koepka, who have each dropped three spots since Jan. 1.

Mickelson will certainly be scrutinized this week. He’s a three-time Masters champion, finishing in the top 10 a staggering 15 times in the last 21 years at Augusta National.

Mickelson, 45, is in the midst of by far the longest winless stretch of his career.

He last prevailed at the 2013 British Open but tied for second at the 2015 Masters and has three PGA Tour top-fives this year, one shy of his total for 2014 and 2015 combined.

However, Mickelson duffed a crucial shot at making up ground on Johnson and Reed at the World Match Play Championships two weeks ago.

He lost to Reed 5&4 with a spot in the round of 16 at stake. Reed advanced to play Johnson, with Johnson reaching the quarterfinals to consolidate his place as the No. 4 U.S. man behind Spieth, Watson and Fowler.

Outside of the U.S., the best Olympic teams are looking like Australia and Great Britain.

The Australian team appears set with No. 1 Jason Day and No. 7 Adam Scott, though Scott has been critical of Olympic golf. It wouldn’t be shocking for Scott to turn down an Olympic place, which would open the door for No. 31 Marc Leishman.

While the U.S. can send four men to the Olympics in the top 15, once outside the top 15 a nation’s total number of Olympic golfers is capped at two men. Hence Leishman having little chance if Day and Scott accept berths, unless he cracks the top 15.

Great Britain also has two men in the top 15 — No. 9 Justin Rose and No. 12 Danny Willett — and nobody else until No. 25 Paul Casey.

One man in the Masters field who doesn’t need to worry is 53-year-old Vijay Singh, who is ranked No. 215 but is virtually (if not mathematically) assured a place in the Olympics. Singh is from Fiji, and Fiji has no other golfers ranked in the top 1,000.

Singh would make the Olympics as the 49th out of 60 qualified golfers based on this week’s rankings. The last qualifier based on this week’s rankings is Mardan Mamat of Singapore, who at No. 360 is 145 places below Singh in the world ranking.

Of golf’s Big Four of Singh, Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els from the early 2000s, Singh, the oldest by seven years, will likely be the lone representative at the Rio Games.

MORE: USA Golf unveils Olympic uniforms

Rewind: Australia’s Steven Bradbury gains gold and lasting fame after pileup takes out Apolo Ohno

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Heading into the 2002 Winter Olympics, young American Apolo Ohno was a phenom with a legitimate shot at multiple medals in short-track speedskating.

The 1999 world junior champion and future “Dancing with the Stars” champion had finished first in the World Cup season standings in all three individual disciplines in the 2000-01 season. In the 2001 world championships, he took gold in the relay and the 3,000m (a non-Olympic event), silver in the 1,000m and fourth in the 1,500m.

Australia’s Steven Bradbury was at the other end of his career, enduring all sorts of misfortune in the years that followed — a 1995 accident in which he needed more than 100 stitches after a skate blade sliced his thigh, then a 2000 accident in which he broke two vertebra in his neck. 

The highlights of Bradbury’s career were relay world championships medals — gold in 1991, bronze in 1993, silver in 1994. He and his relay teammates also took Olympic bronze in 1994.

Bradbury barely advanced to one individual final, the 1,000m in 2002. He advanced from the quarterfinal when Canadian favorite Marc Gagnon was disqualified. He advanced from the semifinal when multiple skaters fell.

In the final, Bradbury was matched up against three outstanding skaters, including Ohno and Li Jiajun of China, who won this event and the overall title at the 2001 world championships. Ohno and Li had finished 1-2 in the 1,000m World Cup standings in 2001.

Bradbury couldn’t keep up. The other four skaters were in a pack, making dangerous passes among each other, while Bradbury fell further and further behind.

Those dangerous passes finally caught up to the rest of the field in the final turn. Li bumped into Ohno, which would lead to Li’s disqualification. After the lead pack jockeyed for position through the entire race, all four tumbled to the ice.

Bradbury, the last man standing, crossed the finish line first.

 

From the tangled pile-up, Ohno managed to fling himself, skate-first, across the finish line to take silver. Canada’s Mathieu Turcotte made it across for bronze.

Ohno wasn’t done in Salt Lake City. He won the 1,500m gold after the disqualification of Kim Dong-Sung, a controversial decision that made Ohno the object of South Korean derision.

Less controversially, Ohno won three more individual world championship events from 2005 to 2009, plus two relay golds, and the overall world title in 2008. In the Olympics, he took six more medals, including gold in the 500m in 2006 and silver in the 1,500m in 2010.

Bradbury missed the finals in the other two events in Salt Lake City, but his name lives on in the Urban Dictionary and elsewhere as a synonym for an improbable and even accidental victory. He embraced his unique place in history to carve out a career as a motivational speaker delivering more than 1,000 speeches in 19 countries, according to the International Skating Union and has even seen his win commemorated in Legos.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier form new figure skating pair

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A few weeks after her husband and skating partner, Chris Knierim, stepped away from competitive figure skating, Alexa Scimeca Knierim has a new partner.

Brandon Frazier, who was also looking for someone to form a new pair after longtime partner Haven Denney stepped away from competition, at least temporarily, will join Scimeca Knierim on the ice whenever they’re able to train and compete again.

Frazier is a longtime friend of Chris Knierem. Scimeca Knierim told U.S. Figure Skating’s FanZone that Frazier had played a pivotal role in kindling the Knierem’s off-ice romance.

Denney and Frazier won the U.S. championship in 2017 and finished 20th in the world championships that year. They finished third in their two Grand Prix assignments last fall — Skate America and the Internationaux de France. They were runners-up in the 2019 U.S. championships and fifth this year, when they revived their “Lion King” free skate.

The Denney-Frazier pair took an unusual path to figure skating, starting as roller skaters.

The Knierims won their third U.S. championship in January but handed their slot in the world championships to Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson when Chris Knierim, struggling with his form and depression, decided he was unable to continue beyond the Four Continents Championship. The world championships were later canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.

READ: Resilient Knierims withdraw from world championships

The couple had earned attention for their romance and for their inspirational returns from illness and injury. Their U.S. championship win earlier this year was their third.

Skate America, the first event on the Grand Prix circuit, is scheduled to start Oct. 23 in Las Vegas.

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