Golf Course Review - Merion Golf Club (East Course)

FACTS AND STATS: Course Architects: Hugh Wilson (1912), William Toomey/Howard Flynn (1920s), Tom Fazio/Tom Marzolf (2000-12). Year Opened: 1912. Location: Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Slope: 142. Rating: 73.6. Par: 70. Yardage: 6,996.


1 - Par 4 350 Yds 10 - Par 4 303 Yds

2 - Par 5 556 Yds 11 - Par 4 367 Yds

3 - Par 3 256 Yds 12 - Par 4 403 Yds

4 - Par 5 628 Yds 13 - Par 3 115 Yds

5 - Par 4 504 Yds 14 - Par 4 464 Yds

6 - Par 4 487 Yds 15 - Par 4 411 Yds

7 - Par 4 360 Yds 16 - Par 4 430 Yds

8 - Par 4 359 Yds 17 - Par 3 246 Yds

9 - Par 3 236 Yds 18 - Par 4 521 Yds

Par 36 3,736 Yds Par 34 3,260 Yds

Key Events Held: U.S. Open Championship (1934, '50, '71, '81, 2013), U.S. Amateur (1916, '24, '30, '66, '89, 2005), U.S. Women's Amateur (1904, '09, '26, '49), U.S. Girls' Junior (1998), World Amateur Team (1960), Walker Cup (2009), Curtis Cup (1954).

Awards Won: Ranked #8 Golf Digest - America's 100 Greatest Courses (2013-14), #2 by Golf Digest - Best in State (Pennsylvania) (2005-14), #10 by Golf Magazine - Top 100 World Courses (2009-11), #7 by Golf Magazine - Top 100 U.S. Courses (2007-11), Top 100 Most Prestigious Private Clubs in U.S. - Golf Connoisseur.

Course Record: 64 (Lee Mackey, Jr - 1950; Ben Crenshaw - 1981).


HISTORY: Merion Golf Club is steeped in history, dating back to 1896 when the original course was laid out. However, in 1910 the powers that be chose to lay out a new course to be designed by Hugh Wilson, a 32-year-old member of the club. Wilson was sent to Scotland and England to study and play their great links courses in an effort to gain insight and knowledge for his crafting of a masterpiece back home.

Upon completion in September 1912, Wilson crammed 18 holes into just 126 acres of land (some courses use over 300 acres). The Scottish immigrant also dotted the course with 120 steep-faced, Scottish-style bunkers, which came to be known as the "white faces of Merion." Wilson's bunkering would eventually influence generations of architects.

Consistently ranked as one of the top-10 courses in the United States, Merion East made its national debut when it hosted the 1916 U.S. Amateur won by Chick Evans. It also marked the first appearance by the legendary Robert Tyre Jones at age 14. Jones later made history at Merion in 1930 when he completed his "Grand Slam" by winning the U.S. Amateur, following victories at the U.S. and British Opens and the British Amateur. Jones, who also captured the 1924 U.S. Amateur, has a plaque placed in his honor at the 11th hole commemorating golf's grandest feat.

History at Merion is not relegated to the Amateur. The first that comes to mind is the 1934 U.S. Open. Relative unknown Olin Dutra of Los Angeles, came back from eight shots back after two rounds to defeat the legendary Gene Sarazen by one.

Bobby Cruickshank held the 36-hole lead by three over Sarazen at 142, 2-over par. Playing 36 on the final day, Sarazen took the lead with a morning 73, while Cruickshank shot 77 and Dutra shot 71 to trail only by three. It must be noted that Dutra, who arrived tournament week with a stomach ailment, played the final day terribly ill with dysentery, taking pills and sugar cubes for energy.

Cruickshank and Sarazen were even after nine holes with Dutra still trailing by three. At the famous 11th, Cruickshank mishit his second shot, sending it toward the creek surrounding the green. Amazingly, the ball hit a rock in the creek and bounded on the putting surface. Shocked, Cruickshank tossed his club up in astonishment, yelling "Thank you, Lord." Just after bellowing this phrase, the club came down and struck him directly on his head. Cruickshank was never the same and finished with 76, tying for third.

Sarazen suffered on the 11th as well, as he hooked his tee shot into the creek and made a triple-bogey seven en route to a 76. Dutra played steady on the back side with birdies on 10 and 15, and despite back-to-back 3-putt bogeys on the last two holes, was still able to eke out the win, his second in a major championship (he also won the 1932 PGA Championship). Dutra's winning score was 13-over par and along with Oakmont in 1927, the second-highest score by a winner in U.S. Open history (plus-17 in 1919 at Brae Burn Country Club). For the week, only one player broke par and the scoring average was a whopping 78.19.

The 1950 U.S. Open comes next. Just 16 months after colliding head-on with a bus in Texas, Ben Hogan outlasted Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in a playoff to win the second of his four U.S. Open titles.

The most famous picture in golf is Hogan hitting his iconic 1-iron to the 18th green at Merion during the final round to help secure his spot in the playoff en route to the championship. This shot also was memorialized with a plaque in the fairway. It should be noted that Hogan needed only to play the final four holes in 1-over par, but missed a 30-inch par putt on 15 and bogeyed the 17th from a bunker. His approach on 18 finished 40 feet from the cup and he safely two-putted to finish regulation at 7-over par.

Fazio struggled in the playoff, but Hogan was only one clear of Mangrum as the trio played the 16th. Ready to play his fourth shot, Mangrum noticed a bug on his ball and picked it up in order to blow the insect off. However, prior to 1960 this was not permitted according to the rules of golf and therefore he was assessed a two-shot penalty. Hogan then birdied the difficult 17th and won by four over Mangrum and by six over Fazio. For the week, the players averaged just over 76 shots per round. Of the 27 amateurs in the field, only one, P.J. Boatwright, made the cut. Boatwright later became the executive director of the USGA from 1969-80.

One of the most bizarre stories that has occurred in a U.S. Open took place in 1950. A Philadelphia newspaper on the final day ran a story that Joe Kirkwood Sr. was killed in an automobile accident several months prior to the championship. A man approached Joe Jr. while he was playing his last group of holes and expressed his sympathy. Since he had not seen his father, he thought the worse and promptly bogeyed his final three holes. Following his round, he learned that his father was well. Unfortunately for Kirkwood Jr., he missed the playoff by two shots.

The 1971 U.S. Open held at Merion also ended in a playoff. This time around, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino squared off in an 18-hole duel. Amateur Jim Simons, who led after 54 holes, needed birdie on the last to join the playoff, but drove in the rough and failed to make three.

To ease the tension of the playoff, Trevino pulled out a rubber snake on the first tee and threw it to Nicklaus. The "Merry Mex" then went on to shoot 68 to Nicklaus' 71 and win his second U.S. Open crown. Following his win, Trevino was quoted as saying, "I love Merion, and I don't even know her last name."

It must be noted that both Trevino and Nicklaus had chances to win the championship in regulation, but failed to do so. Trevino's eight-foot par putt missed on the last hole when a man fell from a scoreboard and distracted him, and Nicklaus, needing par on the last to force the playoff, missed a 15-foot birdie putt on the famed final hole which would have won him the title.

The victory for Trevino was his second U.S. Open title and part of one of the most amazing feats in golf, winning the Open Championships of the United States, Great Britain and Canada, which he accomplished in 20 days.

The average score for the week was 74.23, with 59 rounds of par or better. Simons carded the lowest round of the week, a third-round 65.

When Nicklaus led the United States to victory in the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship at Merion Golf Club, his four-day score of 269 is often referred to as one of the most dominant performances in golf. Although individual scores are not recognized, Nicklaus carded rounds of 66-67-68-68 as the United States won the event by 42 shots. Nicklaus' teammates were Deane Beman and Robert Gardner.

The fourth and final Open held at Merion came in 1981, as David Graham became the first Australian to win the title. Trailing George Burns by three shots heading into the final day, Graham carded a 3-under 67 for a 3-shot win over Burns and Bill Rogers. Burns' third-round total of 203 set a new 54-hole mark at the time. The third round also produced the lowest score of the week, a sizzling 6-under 64 by Ben Crenshaw. In just his second year on Tour, Crenshaw finished tied for 11th.

Graham and Burns were even through 13 holes, but Graham took the lead with back-to-back birdies on 14 and 15 and then parred out for his second major title, having captured the 1979 PGA Championship. Called one of the finest finishing rounds in Open history, Graham hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation (missing the three other greens by inches), missed only the first fairway (although he birdied the hole) and took 33 putts on the day.

The first round of the 1981 U.S. Open proved to be a historic one, as Jim Thorpe garnered the lead following the opening round, becoming the first black ever to lead the Open. Thorpe opened with 66 and finished tied for 11th with Crenshaw and Isao Aoki.

For the week, only five players finished under par and Graham's total of 273 was one shy of the mark set by Jack Nicklaus a year earlier. Graham and Rogers were the only players in the field to shoot par or better in all four rounds. In addition, the course played to a scoring average of 73.63 for the week, the lowest of all four U.S. Opens held at Merion.

In 2005, the USGA returned to Merion for the 105th playing of the U.S. Amateur. After two days of stroke play, only four players broke par, shooting 1-under-par 69s.

The match play portion of the event dwindled down to American Dillon Dougherty and Edoardo Molinari of Italy. Following the morning 18 holes, Dougherty held a 3-up advantage over Molinari; however, the Italian captured the first two holes of the afternoon session and then squared the match on the fifth (23rd hole). Molinari, who became the first Italian to compete in the U.S. Amateur, birdied the seventh (25th) for the lead and then extended his position with a birdie on the ninth (27th). Molinari closed out the match with a birdie on the 15th (33rd) to win, 4 & 3.

Over the final 15 holes, Molinari was an impressive 7-under par, using just 18 putts and one-putting 10 times in his last 15 holes. With the victory, Molinari became the first European to win the Amateur since Harold Hilton of England captured the event in 1911. Current PGA Tour stars who competed at the 2005 U.S. Amateur included Anthony Kim, Webb Simpson, Billy Horschel, Luke List and Colt Knost.

Following the U.S. Amateur, the USGA awarded the East Course at Merion the 2013 U.S. Open Championship. "This probably will be the most precise golf course we play a U.S. Open on," said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA. "It just requires precision off the teeing ground and precision into the greens, with your approach shots."

Next up for Merion was the 2009 staging of the Walker Cup, as the United States overwhelmed the team from Great Britain and Ireland, 16 1/2 to 9 1/2.

The Americans had an 8-4 lead heading into the final day and continued to play strong golf. They took three points in the foursomes matches in the morning and lost only one match.

In the singles, the U.S. squad displayed its great depth, although the first match went to Gavin Dear of Great Britain and Ireland. He defeated Brian Harman, 3 & 2, but the United States swept the next three matches. Rickie Fowler capped off a perfect week with a 2 & 1 win over Matt Haines, then Peter Uihlein defeated Stiggy Hodgson, 3 & 1, and Morgan Hoffmann pulled off a 1-up victory over Wallace Booth. Fowler and Uihlein both went 4-0 as the United States captured the Walker Cup for the third consecutive time. Long-time Merion member Buddy Marucci captained the U.S. squad. Fowler was quite impressed with the course. "It's a special, awesome place."

With the playing of the 2013 U.S. Open, Merion Golf Club will be hosting its 18th USGA Championship, the most by any club in history. In fact, Merion has hosted a USGA event every decade since 1900. In addition, since the playing of the U.S. Amateur, the course has been lengthened 150 yards and since it hosted the 1981 U.S. Open, it's been stretched some 452 yards.

"Merion and its East Course, beyond the history, is on virtually everybody's hit list of great golf courses and great architectural features," Davis said. "Merion itself is a true blend of short and long."

Also unique to Merion are its flagsticks, or should I say, wicker poles. Instead of a flag on each stick, Merion has a wicker, bowl-shaped ornament adorning each pole, a mystery that still has people guessing on its origin. Rumor has it that Wilson got the idea from the flagsticks at Sunningdale Golf Club outside London. Estimated at $1,000 each, the wicker flag sticks are collected every evening and put back out each morning.

HOLE-BY-HOLE REVIEW: The course starts out innocently enough with a short dogleg right par-4 of just 350 yards. Let me re-phrase, there is nothing innocent at Merion. Numerous bunkers dot both sides of the fairway, with trees guarding left and right. A short-iron approach is left to a green that slopes from back to front and right to left. Take advantage of the first because birdies will not be easy to come by as play continues.

Players now cross over Ardmore Avenue to battle the next 11 holes. The par-5 second is long, uphill, and bends slightly to the left, as it has been lengthened in recent years. Out of bounds looms along the right because the fairway was shifted closer to the road, but two solid shots will set up a wedge or less to a 35-yard-long green, flanked on both sides by four bunkers. A cross bunker has been added short of the green, so the longest hitters will now have to think about getting home in two. Birdie is possible, but make sure you don't short side yourself.

The uphill, par-3 third, also lengthened in recent years, presents the first really tough challenge at Merion, as there is little room for error and proper club selection is key. Stretched to 256 yards, hitting the green will take great skill, and even then there is no guarantee for par, as the contours of the putting surface, which bend hard from left to right and back to front will test even the most-skilled player. This hole ranks as the second longest par-3 in U.S. Open history. The teeing area for the third also can be used for the sixth hole.

The demand of the course continues when you reach holes four, five and six, as these are the most difficult on the outward nine. At 628 yards and lengthened with a new tee, the fourth is the longest and last par-5 on the course. Trees guard the right side of the fairway halfway down and two huge sand pits guard the left. The right-to-left tilting fairway will move balls quickly to the left rough, making even your layup shot next to impossible. The big hitters can think about getting home in two, as the hole plays downhill toward the green, but the second shot will be blind to a well-guarded green, fronted by a creek. The layup shot will be difficult due to a side hill or hanging lie and should be placed well short of the creek, leaving a pitch of 80-100 yards. The putting surface slopes severely from back-to-front and is guarded by five deep bunkers. Nothing wrong with making par on the fourth.

Now it's time to tackle the fifth. A new tee, some 60-80 yards back, has been added to this rugged par-4, stretching it to 504 yards. The hole bends to the left and the fairway slopes hard from right to left toward the meandering stream that encompasses the entire left side to the green. The fairway slightly opens up on the right side just past a 20-yard bunker, leaving a long iron or fairway metal approach to a very difficult green, which slopes hard from right to left. The putting surface sits precariously close to the stream, so play toward the right and let gravity takes its course. No question, par is a great score here. Bogey is not bad, either.

The third hole of this triumvirate is the increased sixth, which now reaches 487 yards. Out-of-bounds flanks the right side and bunkers left put an extreme premium on accuracy off the tee. A medium-to-long iron will be required to reach a green that is offset at an angle, making your approach shot quite testing. Pin placement could be tricky, as three large bunkers surround the putting surface, which features a false front. Miss long and your chance at par is slim. Even par or better after these three holes, and you should consider yourself fortunate.

Holes seven and eight are short par-4s and could enable yourself to get back in the game - maybe. The seventh at 360 yards requires an iron or hybrid off the elevated tee, as the fairway is quite tight. Out-of-bounds right, trees and sand left must be avoided at all cost. A successful tee shot will set up a wedge to a very narrow, but deep (41 yards) green. To make matters worse, players must negotiate the two-tiered green, which slopes from back-to-front. Just another one of the diabolical putting surfaces at Merion.

The eighth also suggests an iron or hybrid off the tee, which must be placed between large bunkers right and deep rough left. Just a flip wedge approach awaits the player to one of the smallest greens on the course, which is just 21 paces in depth and slopes severely from back-to-front. Judge the downhill approach correctly or a huge, fronting bunker awaits. A definite birdie opportunity.

The outward nine concludes with a long, downhill par-3, which now after the addition of a new teeing area stretches to 236 yards. This beauty has alternate teeing grounds, both right and left of the eighth green. Fronting the long kidney-shaped green are a pond and stream, while the putting surface itself is guarded by five nasty bunkers. With a back-left pin, you might need to play this hole as a par four! Just another one of the many signature holes at Merion.

The back nine begins with a short dogleg left par-4, just 303 yards in length from an elevated tee. Your tee shot starts from a chute of trees and requires a big draw if you have any chance of driving the green. It's certainly possible, but quite risky, as out-of-bounds is just a few feet from the green. The difficulty here lies in and around the putting surface, as deep fescue, rough and sand provide plenty of cover. In addition, the green is very small and narrow, and slopes from back-to-front with a ridge in the center. Take some spin off your approach, or you'll spin back off the green. Nothing worse than par is acceptable on 10.

The 11th is one of the most famous holes in golf, as this is the spot that Bobby Jones clinched his "Grand Slam" in 1930. "I mean it's hard to think of a moment in time in the United States that was more important than Bob Jones winning the Grand Slam here at Merion," Davis said. "And back then, let us not forget the U.S. Amateur was a more important championship than the U.S. Open." The fairway has been shifted to the left, closer to a stream, so what was once a straightaway, downhill par-4, now requires thought and extreme accuracy. A fairway metal or long iron is the play to a narrow and blind fairway. The approach shot will be difficult, as the green is guarded front, right and back by Cobb's Creek and left by a deep bunker. From the rough, you'll have a decision to make, as you'll be hard-pressed to keep your ball on the green. The lima bean-shaped putting surface is just 23 yards deep and runs from back to front. Par here and you'll think you made history.

Not so simple anymore, the 12th has been lengthened to over 400 yards and is now a very difficult, dogleg-right par-4 that places a premium first on the tee shot and then the approach. The tee area stands deep into a chute of trees and requires a fade over a creek, some 220 yards away. Bunkers guard the left side of the left-to-right tilting fairway, while deep woods cover the right. Even with a successful tee shot, your approach will be uphill to a long, narrow green, trapped heavily on both sides, with the most difficult of bunkers on the right. The surface of the green slopes from left to right and back to front, and although it has been tapered somewhat, it still is one of the quickest on the course. There is virtually no chance of two-putting from above the hole. Take par if you're lucky or bogey and move on.

Back across the road, players are greeted by the friendly and sometimes not- so-friendly 13th, most likely your last chance at birdie. Just 115 yards, this gem of a hole is fronted by a huge bunker with additional sand left and behind the small 20-yard deep and sloping green. This minuscule putting surface will yield plenty of birdies, but will certainly penalize the errant shot.

The final five holes at Merion are considered the best finishing holes in championship golf and will test the best of players as they near the end of their round. Many players, including 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who played here in the 2005 U.S. Amateur, have commented that this is the best stretch of holes in golf. "The last five are going to be some of maybe the hardest that we have ever had in the U.S. Open," Simpson said.

Starting off with the 14th, this dogleg-left, uphill par-4 has been stretched to 464 yards. Not only does it require incredible accuracy off the tee, you'll need power out a massive blast to have a reasonable chance of knocking on your second shot. Thick, nasty rough lines the left side of the fairway, while deep fairway bunkers protect the right. Certainly, a draw is the play here, but with such a narrow landing area, this might be one of those, hit and hope shots. With a successful tee shot, you'll be left with an uphill and semi- blind approach to a putting surface guarded by sand right and short left and a huge, shaved slope to the left. The putting surface features a hollow in the center and slopes quickly from back-to-front. Par will be outstanding.

Just the opposite is the lengthened, but shorter 15th, a dogleg right of 411 yards. Requiring a fade, your tee shot must carry three large, angled bunkers that cover the corner of the bend. The last trap, which was moved closer to the fairway, necessitates a 300-yard pop, but beware of the out-of-bounds down the left of the tight landing area. "Those players that work it right to left and that can't do it the other way or at least aren't comfortable in competition, that is probably the scariest tee shot at Merion," Davis said. With a quality tee ball, players will be left with a short iron, played uphill to another severely sloped putting surface. Sand protects par very nicely here, while the green itself cants from back left to front right. If the pin is tucked back and right, be thankful if you make bogey. If the pin is up front, make sure you stay below the hole, even off the green, as you'll have a better chance at birdie. According to Davis, the 15th green is "one of the most challenging greens at Merion."

The first of the final three quarry holes, the 16th features a downhill tee shot to a narrow fairway. Trees have been cleared on the right to open up the hole visually, but sand still remains left and right of the fairway, which, if you land into, will leave just a pitch out to the short grass. Your second shot on this uphill 430-yarder will be with a mid-to-long iron to an incredibly long, 43-yard green. What makes this hole so demanding is the second shot, which must carry over a wide quarry of sand and scrub. Even if you reach the putting surface, your ball must be on the right level, or three- putting or worse is a cinch.

At 246 yards from the tips, the 17th is a brute, as the player is faced with hitting metal over a quarry to a narrow, but deep, three-tiered green. Once again, the putting surface is surrounded, this time by six bunkers and deep rough! Let's not forget the valley of sin short of the green. This hole is all carry. Not so easy when your hitting fairway metal or hybrid to a spec of a green. Lee Trevino called the difficult 17th, "the shortest par-4 in Open history."

If you thought the 17th was tough, well, as they say, "You ain't seen nothing yet." The closing hole is one of the finest finishers in the game of golf. Now measuring 521 yards from the new back markers, the 18th is the third-longest par-4 in U.S. Open history and features a blind, uphill tee shot that must carry back over the quarry 240 yards to an undulating fairway. If your tee shot reaches the fairway, it's very possible to have a mid-iron to the green. If not, the player is faced with a long-iron or fairway metal to an elevated and domed green which slopes from right to left. Any shot short will roll back down the fairway and long will bound over the green. Some competitors play short of the green in hopes of bouncing up on the green. Little chance that will happen. This could be one of the hardest greens to hold in two, especially when needing a par on to win your match, good luck! "I would consider 18th the toughest finishing hole in all of the U.S. Opens," said Davis. "It requires a great tee shot, a great second shot, and it's one of Merion's most challenging greens."

OVERALL: Prior to 2000, Merion's chances for hosting a U.S. Open again seemed dim, but with the increased length (400-500 yards) and recently purchased land nearby for corporate tents, the USGA awarded Merion with the 2013 Open.

This course has withstood the test of time and will undoubtedly host other USGA events in the future. Pound-for-pound, Merion is one of the finest courses in the world and matches up against all challengers. All you need to know is that 1950 U.S. Open champion Ben Hogan called Merion, "The best parkland golf course in the United States."

All aspects at Merion - layout, conditioning, clubhouse and service - are second to none. Walking is a must at Merion, as no carts are allowed, which gives you the opportunity to stroll these hallowed grounds where the immortal players of the past and present have.

"This place is just magical," Davis said. "In so many ways, it's a historical, it's an architectural treasure. From a golf standpoint, I think you could easily say it's a landmark."

A word of advice ... listen to your caddie. They have been surveying the course for years and know what they're doing, trust me. Your caddie will tell you what to aim for and how to read the greens. Heck, he might even tell you what club to use. Advise at Merion is a good thing.

At just under 7,000 yards from the tips, Merion is certainly not the longest course in the world, but it definitely has plenty of bite, not to mention the respect of the golf community. "I tell people all the time, it is my favorite golf course in the world," Simpson said. "What it demands out of the players is so different than most golf courses."

If you think you're going to post your best score ever ... good luck with that.

"The uniqueness of the sloped fairways, they're tight and the greens are small," Simpson said. "There's a lot of intricacies with Merion that a player will go around the first time and not see them all."

Not only are the greens small, as Simpson indicated, but the slope and speed will keep you guessing. "What's interesting or, well, almost fascinating about Merion's putting greens," Davis said, "is that in so many ways there's no specific traits to these greens. They are wonderfully designed and I think for that they're fascinating the more and more you get to study them, and certainly how you approach them strategically is very important."

So, you have these tight fairways, thick rough, deep bunkers and toss in some of the most diabolical greens around, and you still want to come back ... you bet!

What a great mix of par-3s and par-4s and, of course, the two stellar par-5s. The four one-shotters, although three are roughly the same in length, play quite differently. From the slightly uphill third, to the downhill ninth over water, the short 13th and the massive 17th, the par 3s at Merion are quite a foursome. "I would contend three out of four of those par-3s would match up, in fact surpass any of the par-3s of any other U.S. Open course we play," said Davis.

The par-4s are also quite interesting. Five are under 400 yards, four are over 460 and three are a little over 400. Now that's a variety. Davis continued, "What's so neat about this architecture is that when Bob Jones was playing here in 1930, those short holes were short. But what Merion's been able to do is take the long holes and make them long for today's players."

When the round is complete, take time to sip a cocktail or two or grab a bowl of Snapper Soup on the lawn adjacent to the first tee. It's worth the price of admission.

In a word or two or three, Merion is phenomenal, awesome and grand. Those sentiments are felt by the game's greatest, Jack Nicklaus, who said "acre for acre, it may be the best test of golf in the world."

How can you argue with that?

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