The Local Knowlege

British Open

How the Slam was lost

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland  -- The sequence that first convinced me Jordan Spieth would win the British Open began on the 7th green. By then, the early insurgent wave had been forgotten. The wind and rain had arrived as promised, but not to obliterating effect, and the Old Course yielded birdie after birdie to the real contenders. They attacked in a bold, fearless way that, as Spieth himself would later note, felt very unlike the final round of a major.

On No. 6, Spieth made his second straight birdie to reach 14 under, gave a quick fist pump, and nodded vigorously on the next tee when a woman shouted, "You're making Texas proud, Jordan!" Now the rain came harder, and the clouds, low and scudding a day earlier, drifting like flotillas, now congealed into a thick veil -- a series of thin gray shrouds covering the sun, one on top of the other, until the grayness deepened and took on an impermeable density. On the green, Spieth couldn't help but look over at Adam Scott, putting on the 11th, and the standard bearer who displayed his score: -15. With scores dropping everywhere, each putt felt critical, each bogey like a death sentence.

Spieth took an aggressive stab at his birdie putt, but he missed. The scoreboard gave more bad news: Zach Johnson moved to seven under after 12 holes and 16 under for the tournament. It was an incredible score, and a disheartening one, because it was impossible to be unbiased out on the course. Each birdie by Johnson, or Scott, or Marc Leishman, or Louis Oosthuizen, was an affront to Spieth, and an affront to Spieth was an affront to history. The possibility of winning, and claiming the third major of the year, had become more tangible than ever before, and because of that it had also become more painful. If he had missed the cut, or faded on Saturday, this would have been easy, because nobody can really expect a player to follow through on that kind of history. Now, though, the possibility was distinct, and a loss was no longer just a loss. A loss was an act of devastation -- a storyline chopped off at the knees.

And the strange part of golf is that sometimes, you can't face your opponent. Zach Johnson had already made the turn into the clubhouse, out of sight, safely removed from confrontation and influence. I squinted my eyes in the direction of where I knew he must be, and in the misty distance I saw St. Andrews -- the spires and the stone of the ancient town. But I didn't see Zach Johnson. He was like a ghost haunting Spieth, invisible but dangerous -- a spirit from delivering ominous prophecies from the future: "This is how you're going to lose."

At that moment, the rain fell harder, slanting below the umbrellas in the wind. Spieth holed his par putt, but on the par-3 8th, his ball flew right, headed for the flag marking the 10th hole on the shared green.

"Jordan, come on, man!" he shouted at himself. "Wrong pin!"

Maybe it was the wind he had in mind before sent his long putt skidding far past the hole and over the green -- it blew in his face, and it's possible he misjudged its effect and overcompensated. The return putt wasn't much better, and when he missed his bogey attempt for a disastrous and uncharacteristic 4-putt, a nearby marshal summed up everybody's feelings: "I don't think we'll ever witness that again!"

Back to 12 under. Was it the fatal cut? Was this really the moment when the dream of a Grand Slam ended? I remembered the Spieth I knew in 2014, from the Masters and the Players Championship and the Ryder Cup match against Graeme McDowell, and how he'd flail under the weight of his own disappointment, gradually growing more and more discouraged, engaged in open self-sabotage. This was the anti-climax I feared, and I had the thought that he needed to birdie the next two holes, one after the other, to put it behind him.

The ninth green. Spieth backs off his birdie putt.

"Guys on the phone, we can hear that!" yelled his caddie Michael Greller, facing the grandstand.

"Mike, gust of wind," Spieth says hurriedly, ending the lecture. "It was a gust of wind."

Greller turns back to the fans. "OK, thanks!"

Spieth makes the putt.

Tenth fairway, and Spieth passes Oosthuizen and the amateur Paul Dunne coming down the eighth. These will be the last golfers he encounters on the course. On the way out, the traffic came and went beside him. On the way in, he'll be alone. Framed by the sand dunes of the North Sea, he hits a short wedge into the green and makes his second straight birdie.

Back to 14 under, and I remembered that this wasn't the Spieth of 2014. This was the alchemist, who took the pressures of becoming golf's crown prince and used them as fuel. Recovery was now a weapon, not a weakness. The weather worsened, and now he had to out-survive the field. But I knew he'd do more -- he'd win.

*

I knew it again on the 16th hole. He made his par on 11, and rewarded himself with a trip the gorse, and the restroom. He made his par on 12, hitting his approach in front of a violet bed of heather, and the maroon seed heads of bentgrass undulating in the rough, with the dark waters of the Eden Estuary on his right. He made his par on 13 with a nervy wedge from off the green that hit the hole, and may have gone in if he'd pulled the flagstick. He made his par on 14, as a roar came from the 18th green, where Zach Johnson holed his birdie putt to finish at 15 under and better the current clubhouse lead by five strokes. He made his par on 15 as Marc Leishman bogeyed ahead to fall to 15 under as well, setting off a murmur of anticipation in the gallery.

Spieth was now one off the lead, and a chasm had formed between the top five and those, like Scott and Sergio Garcia and Jordan Niebrugge, who had threatened earlier in the day before falling off. The chaos subsided; we knew the wheat, we knew the chaff.

Then came the 16th, when Spieth hit his approach to the front left of the green, about 40 feet from the pin. His round had gone a little static since the recovery, and for whatever reason -- carried off by the tension -- I wrote "how legendary will you be?" in my notebook. It was a legitimate question, not a prediction. I didn't expect him to make it, but I did recognize the potential built into that scene, and I remembered the moments when Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus capitalized under similar circumstances, always one step ahead of expectations -- we love them because they surprise us. Also, I realized that he needed the putt. Leishman could birdie 18 to finish at 16 under, and nobody (except for Billy Horschel, on Monday) makes birdie on the Road Hole.

So when it went in, surprising me even after I'd considered that exact outcome at length, you can imagine the feelings that swept through me, and through us all. Delirium, first, and then then awe. All the battering by the wind, all the rain, all the uncertainty, had paid off, because now we were watching history at the most famous golf course in the world. The gray skies looked beautiful, the herring gulls coasting idly on the wind were poetic, and stone buildings waiting for us on 18 teemed with resonance. Spieth walked past to the 17th tee, said "thanks" to a complimentary marshal, and stood with his hands in his pockets watching Jason Day finish. More than anything else, his impending championship felt like destiny.

*

But of course it wasn't. The Road Hole came, the rain resumed, Spieth failed to reach in two shots, and missed his short par putt after an excellent pitch. At the instant the ball ran past the hole, kneeling behind a stone wall by the 18th tee, I felt that the magic of the world was drawn away in a sudden, pitiless vacuum. The sense of fate that had gathered like an aspirational thought bubble above our heads when the 40-footer dropped was revealed for the fraud it really was -- there is nothing supernatural to this game, even here in golf's garden of Eden. The momentum of a great shot only lasts until the next shot, and despite one writer's suggestion that Ben Hogan sent the rain on 17 from whichever paradise he now inhabits, in the end this is a physical and psychological sport, not a spiritual one.

He yanked his drive on 18, made the fatal error of spinning his wedge into the Valley of Sin, and missed the uphill putt. When he finished, he applauded the fans, and he told us afterward that he hadn't considered the history of the moment while he was on the course. Knowing his ability to filter out unwelcome thoughts, I believed him. Aside from a few bad putts, he had played a courageous round in the pit of a cauldron, and that doesn't happen to someone who walks the fairways lost in a dream of surpassing his heroes.

The omens that Zach Johnson sent from ahead turned out to be true -- he won in a four-hole playoff over Oosthuizen and Leishman after a brilliant 66, and Spieth's near-miss will eventually become a footnote, just as Nicklaus and Palmer's near-misses in '60 and '72 are footnotes today. But even if he didn't have history in his head, we had it in ours, and it won't be easy to forget the gift he gave us, of a dazzling and heartbreaking mirage.

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British Open

Jordan Spieth's post-round tweet proves he's the classiest guy around

After falling just short of a playoff that would've won him the British Open and put him just one leg away from the elusive Grand Slam, Jordan Spieth tweeted this:


He uses the words 'wow' and 'almost' where a lot of us would've used strung together some choice words of the four-letter variety. 

And look what time he tweeted that: Just a short while after he finished his round. After a loss like that, it should take a few days before being capable of clear, reasonable thoughts. 

And of the winner? Nothing but compliments. He even hung around and watched the playoff go down. 

He could've stormed off. He could've not said anything about the tournament to anyone until next week, and no one would've blamed him. 

But he didn't. 

Instead, he handled it with the class that's beginning to define Jordan Spieth. And for that, we applaud him. 


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British Open

As good as Jason Day was, again it wasn't good enough

Perhaps there will come a time when good is good enough. And if that opportunity comes, it will be Jason Day’s platform to shine.

Day turned in a bogey-free performance on Monday. If told this proposition pre-round, the 27-year-old Australian would have been ecstatic, as this avoidance is an integral factor in the major-winning equation.

Alas, in a round where the Old Course’s vulnerability was on full display, Day managed just two birdies at St. Andrews. His two-under 70 fell one shot short of the playoff. Good enough to finish fourth, his sixth top-five major finish since 2011.

Day’s name was stalking the leaders from the moment he teed off. His proponents can chalk this sentiment up to perseverance, staying in arms’ length throughout his trek of the Old Course. Conversely, he never had the presence of a contender, with long birdie putts never challenging the hole. He was as much of an afterthought as a top-10 world ranked player could be.

Yet, walking up the 18th to one of the most famous amphitheaters of sports, Day had an opportunity to insert himself into the claret jug conversation. It wasn’t an easy putt, but it wasn't impossible, either. The type of putt the game’s greats sink.

Instead, Day’s shot at immortality came up short by a mile. It never had a chance.

Day has a smooth, natural swing. He’s fourth on tour in driving distance, yet this dexterity does not sacrifice accuracy. A short game that’s unnerved by pressure, seen in a tour-best birdie average. Day’s game is one filled with superlatives.

Except when it comes to finding the winner’s circle on golf’s grandest stage. In that realm, Day is merely good. And thus far in his career, good has not been good enough.

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British Open

Winner's bag: What Zach Johnson used to win the Open

When the pressure is on and you’re in need of some putts to fall, it’s good to have “old faithful” in your hands. That’s what Zach Johnson termed his SeeMore FGP putter—a blade-style putter that he has used since 2001 and his days on the Nationwide Tour. In March, Johnson tried a Scotty Cameron by Titleist Futura X5R for one event, but quickly returned to the SeeMore, which is 34 inches long with 2.5 degrees of loft.

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Johnson’s SeeMore, which has been in the bag now for all 12 of his PGA Tour wins, delivered the critical putts when needed, including a 25-footer at the 72nd hole that propelled him to the playoff, and then birdie putts on the first two holes of overtime to grab the lead and eventually win his second major title.

Here are all of Johnson’s clubs and ball that he used at the Old Course at St. Andrews, including a Titleist 712U 3-iron he put in the bag this week.

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Driver: Titleist 913D2 (Mitsubishi Diamana Blue 73x), 8.5 degrees
3-wood: Titleist 913Fd, 15 degrees
4-wood: Titleist 913F, 17 degrees
Irons (3): Titleist 712U; (4): Titleist AP1 712; (5-9): Titleist AP2 714; (PW): Titleist Vokey SM4
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM4 (54 degrees); Titleist Vokey prototype (60 degrees)
Putter: SeeMore FGP

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British Open

VIDEO: Jordan Spieth almost holes out for birdie, really bummed when he doesn't

As Jordan Spieth's ball tracked toward the cup on the par-4 13th hole at the Old Course, you could almost imagine the clip playing on a loop in some Jordan Spieth career retrospective. Here's when he won the Open at St. Andrews! But the ball needed to go in for birdie, and it didn't, instead hitting the flagstick and settling a few feet away.

The resulting par for Spieth left him two shots behind leader Marc Leishman with time running out in his bid for Grand Slam. Here's the video of Spieth's pitch shot and resulting disappointment.

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British Open

The British Open amateur you should be paying attention to just turned pro

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Ollie Schniederjans had just finish his amateur career in style, the Georgia Tech graduate shooting a five-under 67 in the final round of the Open Championship at the Old Course to secure a likely top-25 finish. But rather than think about his fond farewell, he was focused on his bright future.

"I've just got a lot of confidence run now," he said. "I'm ready to go. My game is in the best place it's ever been. I felt great the last two or three weeks."

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The 22-year-old from Powder Springs, Ga., will make his pro debut at this week's RBC Canadian Open on a sponsor's exemption, before playing the following week at the Quicken Loan Championship. He also is in line to get exemptions into a pair of other PGA Tour events this summer, hoping that be can somehow earn enough money in these starts to earn a card on tour and avoid an apprenticeship on the Web.com Tour.

It's not outrageous to think that Schniederjans can do it. A contemporary of several current PGA Tour players -- he's part of the same high school class of 2011 as Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers -- Schniederjans went the road less traveled by staying four years in college. In the process he earned first-team All-American honors two times and finished last summer as the No. 1 amateur in the world, which secured him exemptions into this year's U.S. and British Opens.

"I'm biased," Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler when I talked to him last month about Schniederjans, "but I haven't seen a player with his golf skills and his maturity off the course in a while. He's got an 'it' that is pretty special."

He showed some of "it" the past five weeks, making the cut at the Chambers Bay and here at St. Andrews, becoming only the third amateur to that in both Opens in the same year since 1960 (the others being Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods).

If Schniederjans was tempted to turn pro after the end of his senior year in June, it was offset by the chance to play at Chambers Bay and St. Andrews. The decision proved critical in getting him set for the transition to the pro game.

"I really wanted these experiences in two majors, and I'm absolutely thrilled that I decided to do that. I think it's developed my game," said Schniederjans, who also played and made the cut at last week's Scottish Open. "I think it's developed me, incredible experiences. I've become really comfortable around all these guys. I've made good friends with some of the best players in the world, and it's been really cool to learn from them and play some practice rounds with them and catch up with Jordan who's having a decent year and get to know Phil and play a practice round with him. I feel comfortable out here."


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British Open

It has not been an auspicious start for young Paul Dunne at St. Andrews

For anyone that’s ever wondered what it would be like to be an amateur heading into the final round of the British Open with the lead, Paul Dunne has your answer.

And it’s not pretty.

Dunne escaped his opening shot without drama, although, at St. Andrews, it's damn near impossible NOT to be in good shape. The same could not be said for his second shot. 

Dunne chunked a 130-yard approach, so short that it failed to reach the first-hole burn. 

Good news, right? We've all had a bad shot end up in a fortuitous spot. The game taketh away, and it occasionally giveth. Laugh it off, pay your respects to the golf gods, and go about your day. 

Unfortunately, the Irishman did not cash in on this fortune, unable to get it up-and-down to make bogey on the easiest hole on the course.

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Not a problem. First-hole jitters, good to get that out of the way. Just put a nice little swing on this tee ball and…

$#%*.

Dunne went right. WAY right. So far right that it puts Ted Nugent to the left.

Okay, reload. You can miss left at St. Andrews all day. Let’s play it conservative, nothing wrong with a hook. Take this swing back and…

$%#@$#%@&%$@#$%&!

Dunne goes right again, and has to hit a second provisional, which apparently made its way to safety. We're not sure. We blacked out. (It's at this moment we should note that the author may have taken a 71.5-under bet on the 22-year-old out of UAB. You know, if betting was legal.)

Miraculously, Dunne finds his first ball, which resides on the practice putting green. After getting relief, Dunne puts his second shot short of the green. He fails to convert, posting his second bogey of the day. After navigating the first 54 holes of the tournament at 12-under par, Dunne is two over after two holes.

In Dunne’s defense, you wouldn’t be right either if Tom Rinaldi accosted you.

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British Open

SHOCKER: Phil Mickelson makes Sunday charge, blows it when something crazy happens

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Here's a story we could have written last night: Phil Mickelson, professional golfer, makes an incredible surge from off the first page of the leaderboard on a major Sunday, and falls just short after something weird and unfortunate transpires.

Mickelson was six under on the day, and 10 under for the tournament, when he approached the 17th tee. He was two behind the leaders, but with rumors of imminent wind, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that with another birdie or two, he might get off the course just in time to watch the carnage play out from a perch in the clubhouse, and luck his way into a playoff. With 18 conceding a lot of birdies all week, he just had to survive the Road Hole, and the difficult blind drive alongside the Old Course Hotel. With his quintessential wide-eyed star, he teed up and took the all-important swing. Then this happened:

That's so Phil. It wasn't enough to just go OB -- he had to land it on a hotel balcony. And if it was allowed, you know he'd try to play it. As evidence, I present Exhibit A:

And Exhibit B:

Of all the complaints directed against the R&A this week, the organization's biggest sin is that they don't have a specific bylaw allowing Phil Mickelson to knock on a hotel door and politely ask the puzzled guests if he can play through on their balcony. That's an unforgivable oversight.

As for the aborted Sunday charge, we've seen this too many times to count, most recently at this year's Masters, when a series of spectacular birdies and even more spectacular bogeys sent him bouncing around the leaderboard, eventually finishing in a tie for second place as Jordan Spieth won his first major. Maybe history will repeat itself, and this is some kind of positive omen for the young gun. But the real takeaway here is that Phil Mickelson is the best kind of lunatic -- part genius, part gambler, part maverick, part tragic hero -- and we should all hope and pray that he continues doing crazy things on Sundays for years to come.

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British Open

In defense of St. Andrews: why are low scores such a bad thing?

Depending on your definitions of "venerable" and "archaic," the golf world is not honoring its elder. 

St. Andrews is an institution, a breathing beacon of the sport. Unfortunately, the way the players and press are discussing the consecrated grounds, you would think the Old Course was a muny pitch-n-putt. Or worse, Chambers Bay.

Every five years, St. Andrews takes center stage on the rota of Open courses. And every five years, you can count on the blasphemous premise to be raised: has the Old Course become an antiquated venue?

Normally this discussion is simply fodder for radio hosts or writers grasping for attention. There’s little spirit to the conversation, filled with hot air rather than avidity. The type of banter that makes you wish Depends could be tailored to mouths.

However, the table is set for one of the more exciting final-round finishes in major history, and instead of celebrating this fortune, the “Is St. Andrews obsolete?” issue has emerged at the forefront.

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Worse, it’s not just local hacks or shock jocks inciting this subject. Some of the game’s recognizable personalities are probing the Old Course’s championship merit, including the players themselves.

“When you see the type of power that these guys are using and putting on the golf ball, you start wondering what they can do with it to keep it up to modern times,” Graeme McDowell told reporters on Sunday following his round. “The bunkers are just not really in play enough.”

A tad strange McDowell would say such a thing. Given that he’s tied for 64th at two-under, it’s like a student boasting History class isn’t that tough after receiving a “C.”

Yet the Irishman is a major winner, a respected voice in the locker room. He’s not alone in harboring this opinion. And if there was ever a week to question the R&A, now's the time. 

Nevertheless, it’s an easy proposition to counter. Regarding the idea that modern technology is rendering the course passe, Nick Faldo posted a 19-under 270 when winning at St. Andrews in 1990, a mark that likely won’t be reached in 2015. Besides, it’s not the Old Course’s length, or lack thereof, that makes it vulnerable. It’s the wide-open fairways and manageable rough that takes the bite out of this tiger. Two facets which, upon request, could be altered.

Red numbers are not singular to St. Andrews. Jordan Spieth finished the Masters at 18 under, while Rory McIlroy tossed up a 16-under score to win the Wanamaker at Valhalla. Don’t remember the pitchforks coming out amidst the burning light of those leader boards.

Speaking of which, let’s take a peak at the final groups for the 2015 Open. There’s three top-12 players in the World Golf Rankings, a two-time Open winner, the 2010 champion and one of the rising stars of the game. Oh, and some guy who’s captured the first two legs of the Grand Slam.

The purpose of a major championship is to identify the best of the best. St. Andrews more than passes this assessment.

Contrary to popular belief, in tournament golf, a player’s competition is not the course; it’s the field. The ambition is to shoot the lowest number possible. Whether that’s 15 under or five over is irrelevant.

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If provided the choice between watching players salivate or suffer, I’ll go with the former. I want to see Spieth work his irons like a witch with a wand, Dustin Johnson eliminate “par 5” from golf vernacular and Patrick Reed turn every green hit into a birdie attempt. I don’t need to see pros struggle to make par. Have enough of that nonsense in my own game.

Alas, this argument is missing the point. St. Andrews is more than an Open host. A trip to the Old Course, be it in flesh or through broadcast, is a celebration of the game. More than any other sport, golf promotes its past in the present. No course in the world embodies this notion like St. Andrews.

It’s been said that, in society, our elders are living novels. Leaving St. Andrews wouldn’t be turning the page of golf’s transcripts. It would be throwing the damn book away.

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British Open

Is a Jordan Spieth lookalike the golf world's best chance at taking down Jordan Spieth at St. Andrews?

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Despite his relative anonymity until Sunday, Paul Dunne has had plenty of people recognizing him all week. People that think they recognize him, that is.

Dunne is young, in good shape, and spends most of his time in public decked out in grey Under Armour gear. Sound familiar?

"When I put my head down people just see the hat and I get asked for a few autographs," Dunne told the Belfast Telegraph of being confused with Jordan Spieth at St. Andrews. "Then I lift my head and they are disappointed!"

Related: The Jordan Spieth Slam-o-Meter

But after Sunday's 66 to grab a share of the 54-hole lead at the Open Championship, there will be plenty of fans clamoring for a Paul Dunne signature. And if the 22-year-old amateur shoots another 66 on Monday? The recent University of Alabama Birmingham grad might want to loosen up his wrist -- not that he's getting ahead of himself.

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"I'm not really going to think about winning or where I'm going to finish until the last few holes," Dunne said. "If my strategy needs to change a little bit. But yeah, I can't control what other people do. Everyone could go out and shoot 63 or everyone could shoot 75. All I can do is control committing to my shots and hopefully that leaves me in good stead at the end of the day."

Spoken with the calculated tone of a man who just received a finance degree.

Dunne could also wind up having the number 82 in common with Spieth, who will join him in the 22 club later this month. A victory would make Dunne the first amateur to win a major in that many years (Johnny Goodman at the 1933 U.S. Open). Spieth's win at the 2013 John Deere Classic made him the first teenager to win a PGA Tour event in 82 years.

Dunne, who has UAB coach Alan Murray caddying for him this week (think that will help recruiting at all?), would also be the first amateur to win the British Open since Bobby Jones in 1930. That explains why the native of Ireland was listed at 1,500-to-1 odds to win at the start of the week -- longer odds than John Daly and Tom Watson combined. Now Dunne has positioned himself as a surprising challenger to end Spieth's pursuit of the calendar Grand Slam.

Related: The winners and losers from Sunday at St. Andrews

After Friday's round, Dunne was asked about potentially winning the silver medal for being the week's low amateur and replied "that would be brilliant" and "something I would remember forever." After Sunday's round, the questions revolved around a much bigger prize.

"Yeah, it's surreal I'm leading the Open, but I can easily believe that I shot the three scores that I shot," Dunne said. "If we were playing an amateur event here, I wouldn't be too surprised by the scores I shot. It's just lucky that it happens to be in the biggest event in the world."

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