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LPGA major will continue, with or without title sponsor

By John Strege

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Commissioner Mike Whan is entertaining three potential title sponsors for the LPGA’s first major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship this week, Whan said Thursday.

“It’s 75, 25 we’re sitting here next year with a sponsor,” Whan said. Kraft Nabisco is ending its sponsorship of the tournament with which it has been associated since 1982.

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(Getty Images photo)

Even without a sponsor, the show will go on and will go on at Mission Hills Country Club here, Whan said. “We’re coming back, and if we come back without a sponsor we’ll come back without a sponsor. I’ll fund this one.

“At the end of the day, all anyone here needs to know is that we’re coming back. Gabe (Codding, tournament director) and his team aren’t going anywhere. The point is, I want to be here. In my commissioner tenure I don’t want to lose this major. This one is not going away.”

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News & Tours

Annika Sorenstam to have monthly radio show with Golf World/Golf Digest's Ron Sirak

By Ryan Herrington

SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio's launch of programs hosted by current and former tour professionals continued Thursday with the announcement that Annika Sorenstam will have a monthly show on the satellite radio network.

Related: Annika Sorenstam career highlights

The Annika Hour will debut April 2, a day prior to the start of the LPGA's first major championship of 2014, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The program will cover action on both the men's and women's tours, with Sorenstam taking calls and discussing her experiences in golf and business.

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"I'm really looking forward to sharing my thoughts about the game with fans while also giving them a glimpse into my day-to-day routine since stepping away from competitive golf in 2008," Sorenstam said. 

Co-hosting the program will be Golf World executive editor Ron Sirak, who chronicled Sorenstam's Hall of Fame LPGA career for the magazine and Golf Digest. Sirak watched her win 46 times (out of 72 overall victories) and covered eight of her 10 major championship victories.

"It's a thrill to host a show with someone whose work I have watched and respected for so long," Sirak said. "Other than her caddie, Terry McNamara, I have probably seen Annika hit more shots in competition than anyone else."

In the past six months, SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio has launched programs hosted by tour pros Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Rich Beem and Ben Crenshaw as well as instructors Hank Haney, Jim McLean and David Leadbetter.

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News & Tours

Amanda Blumenherst's husband sent to minor league camp

By John Strege

First baseman Nate Freiman, husband of retired (or not) LPGA player Amanda Blumenherst, failed to make the Oakland A's opening-day roster, despite a fairly productive spring training, and was sent to the club's minor league camp on Sunday.

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Last year, Freiman, 27, hit .274 with four home runs and 24 runs batted in in 208 at-bats for Oakland. He spent the entire 2013 season with the American League West champion A's, who were required to keep him on the major league roster for the entire season after acquiring him with a Rule-5 selection.

There was no such restriction on the A's this year. Freiman, a first baseman used exclusively against left-handed pitchers in 2013, batted .238 this spring, with one homer, but he drove in 11 runs, only one fewer than the team leader.

Blumenherst, who met Freiman at Duke, was a three-time college player of the year there. Late last year, she announced she was stepping away from the LPGA to spend time with Freiman, though she left the door open for a return at some point.

It seems likely that Freiman will return to the A's at some point this season. "I'm sure we will see the 6-foot-8 first baseman again this season," Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. "The A's know what he can do, and he's popular with his teammates and the coaching staff, a hard worker who is quirky and kind."

(Getty Images photo)

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News & Tours

Getting into the World Golf Hall of Fame just got tougher ... and more prestigious

By Ron Sirak

WGHOF-Montgomerie.jpgORLANDO -- The World Golf Hall of Fame is one of the best-kept secrets in the game. A walk through the facility in St. Augustine, Fla., is an inspiring trip through time.

The problem is not enough people are making the walk.

In an effort to make more people aware of the institution and get more people involved, WGHOF chief operating officer Jack Peter announced Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational wide-ranging changes to the selection process.

The main revisions include:

* Instead of being an annual event, induction in the WGHOF will happen biennially beginning May 4, 2015.

* Instead of players being selected by a ballot involving hundreds of voters, including dozens of golf writers, a 16-person Selection Commission, with three writers, will choose the induction class. (Editor's Note: Sirak, the current Golf Writers Association of America president, will be one of the three writers on the committee for 2015.)

* To be elected, candidates must receive 75 percent of the vote from the Selection Commission, or 12 of 16 members. Both Fred Couples and Colin Montgomerie (above) were elected to the WGHOF's Class of 2013 with barely more than 50 percent of the vote using the old process.

Related: Varied responses to Fred Couples being named to WGHOF

* The International ballot, which always seemed out of place for a body with the word "World" in its title, has been eliminated. There will be four categories: Male and Female Competitors, Veterans and Lifetime Achievement.

To be considered in the Competitor category, a male needs 15 wins (up from 10) in International Federation of PGA Tours events or two victories in majors or Players Championship.

A woman needs 15 wins on tours that receive Rolex Rankings points or two victories in the five LPGA majors. The 27-point rule will remain in effect for the LPGA Hall of Fame. It is highly unlikely a woman would earn 27 points and not make the WGHOF.

Remaining the same from the previous selection process is the minimum age of 40 for induction or, for retired players, the need to be five years removed from active competition. That means Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa will be eligible for the 2017 class.

The revisions to the selection process come after the WGHOF announced last October it was suspending induction for 2014 to undergo a strategic review of the criteria and make sure it was properly defined to maintain the highest quality of candidate be added to the roster of the game's legends.

"The changes to the process and induction ceremony will serve the long-term interest of the institution well," Peter said. "The changes take the unique nature of the game and its candidates into account and, most important, will continue to allow the Hall of Fame to recognize worthy individuals."

If there is a real flaw in the WGHOF, it is that the public won't start taking it seriously until the players take it seriously. That is another reason for the changes.

Not enough active players and not enough members of the WGHOF show up at the induction ceremony each year. It was hoped that moving the induction from the fall to the Monday of Players Championship week, which was done in 2011 years ago, would fix that. It didn't.

WGHOF.jpgGetting current members of the WGHOF to return to the yearly induction has been a challenge, even after the ceremony was moved to May. (Photo: Getty Images)


The Selection Commission for the 2015 class will be chaired by four WGHOF members: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez. In addition to that four and the three writers, and a representative from the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA, Masters, PGA of America, USGA, R&A and, for the 2015 class, the Japan LPGA and Sunshine Tour.

"This is a great step for the Hall of Fame," Palmer said. "I was honored to be a part of the first Hall of Fame class 40 years ago in 1974, and it will be a privilege to serve on the Selection Commission with Nancy, Annika and Gary for the class of 2015."

The process to determine the incoming class will begin with a 20-person Selection Sub-Committee, which will review eligible candidates and pass 10 names along to all WGHOF members, who will whittle the list to five.

Any player receiving no votes from the sub-committee two consecutive years will be removed from the ballot.

The Selection Commission will pick no more than two candidates from each of the four categories and no more than five total for each class.

The hope of involving the WGHOF members in the voting is that if they feel more vested in the process, they might show up to the induction ceremony in greater numbers.

The intent of making induction something that happens every two years also is to generate greater turnout of both active and inactive players by making the event feel more special.

Photo: Getty Images
 


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News & Tours

USGA's Mike Davis takes skeptical LPGA members questions about twin U.S. Opens

By Ron Sirak

PHOENIX -- When the twin U.S. Opens were announced in 2009 it was all blue birds and butterflies. Having the men and women's national championships played on the same course in consecutive weeks would be a great thing for golf.

But as the double feature at Pinehurst No. 2 this June grows nearer, the realization of all that also could go wrong looms larger -- and more real.
 

Related: Is the USGA making a mistake with the Pinehurst experiment?

To ease those concerns, USGA executive director Mike Davis addressed LPGA members at a players meeting Tuesday night at the JTBC Founders Cup and for the most part found a quietly skeptical  audience. There were questions about divots around greens and in mutual landing areas as well as about housing and practice time, said sources at the meeting.
 
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According to those in attendance, Davis told them that Pinehurst No. 7 would be open to the players on Saturday and Sunday before the U.S. Women's Open -- and during the U.S. Open -- and that the greens on No. 7 would be set to the conditions the greens on No. 2 will be at for the championship. The players will also be allowed on the practice range at No. 2 beginning at noon on Sunday with access to the locker rooms and hospitality areas.

The biggest fear is a weather interruption that would create a Monday finish for the men. And the worst-case scenario is a Monday finish for the men followed by an 18-hole Tuesday playoff.
 
Stacy Lewis, the top American in the Rolex Rankings, said Davis did not go into what would happen if there was a Tuesday finish in the men's Open -- some say there is a scenario for at Saturday through Tuesday U.S. Women's Open -- but she did reveal his plans if the guys have a Monday playoff.
 
"The playoff would begin at noon and we would be allowed on the course beginning at 7 a.m and then again after the playoff is over," Lewis said.
 
You can't help but wonder what the men will say when they hear that.

Among the reasons the USGA cites for why the Women's Open should go after the men's is that, while women can putt greens at the same speed as men they need softer greens that hold better since they do not spin the ball as much. That can be achieved by throwing water on the green after the men's Open is finished.
 
"Let's see if they can pull that off," Lewis said, adding: "Yeah, I'm still apprehensive. They tried to spin it that everything is under control, but the general feeling of the players is that it is going to be a bit of a challenge. The main concern is divots, both in the landing areas and in the collection areas."
 
Lewis, who has not played No. 2 since it was refurbished, plans to go in a couple of weeks early to play some practice rounds. "And I guess I'll practice hitting out of divots," she said. "There was one point when Davis said, 'Divots are part of the game,' and that got a pretty good giggle from the players."
 
The overwhelming feeling among players, according to Lewis is that the women should have gone first. "But, she said, "we will just have to make the best of it."
 

Related: America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses

One hope by the USGA is that having the women go after the men's tournament will provide a public relations springboard into the women's event. That is already the case. Simply the fact people are talking about the U.S. Women's Open in March makes it the most eagerly anticipated women's national championship in years -- maybe ever.

The ultimate gauge of success, of course, will be if the talk after the Twin Opens is about how great the idea it was -- and not about how the women had to play a battered course to crown a champion.

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News & Tours

Why Suzann Pettersen's childhood dream looks like it's about to become a reality

By Ron Sirak

LK-Suzanne-Pettersen.jpgPHOENIX -- I've seen a lot of Cups in my career. Walker Cup, Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup. But the best team match I have ever witnessed was in the 2003 Solheim Cup.

On a brilliant September Saturday in Barseback, Sweden, the last match of the day was a four-ball with Americans Kelly Robbins and Laura Diaz taking on Annika Sorenstam and Suzann Pettersen for Europe.

With that match still on the course, the score was 8 1/2-6 1/2 Europe. The importance of the point was huge. If the Yanks won, they'd trail by just one going to singles. If the Europeans took it, they'd be up by a sizable three points.

Through 15 holes, the match was all square. No. 16 was halved with birdies, as was No. 17, when Sorenstam ran in a 16-foot putt on top of a four-footer by Diaz.

Europe won the match 1-up when Pettersen made a 10-foot birdie on No. 18. In all, Diaz/Robbins and Sorenstam/Pettersen combined to make 15 birdies. The next day, Europe coasted to victory. That four-ball was the pivotal match.

I left Sweden that week thinking Pettersen, all of 22 at the time, would challenge Sorenstam's unquestioned position as the best in women's golf. More than a decade later, Pettersen might finally be ready to reach the top.

The 5-foot-8 Norwegian looks like she could be a professional skier as she possesses as much pure physical talent as anyone on the LPGA.

It's always been difficult to put your finger on the missing piece in the equation, and there have been times when it seemed as if she had the puzzle solved.

The first LPGA win did not come until 2007 and when it did, it let to big things. By year's end she had five victories to her credit, including a major at the LPGA Championship.

But because of injuries, swing issues, equipment changes and who knows what else -- Pettersen has always had a quick temper and was even quicker to be too hard on her self -- she won only once from October 2007 until May 2011.

Now the floodgates seem open again.

Pettersen has two victories in 2011 and in 201,2 then piled up four titles last year, including another major at the Evian Championship. She is No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings and within striking distance of the Inbee Park, who has been No. 1 for 49 weeks.

"I don't think about it that much, to be honest," Pettersen said Tuesday at the JTBC Founders Cup when asked about the rankings. "My goal is to get the best out of my game."

Still, she admits that since she started playing golf as a little girl she has had dreams of being the best in the world. In fact, she says that of the goals in a dream book she made back then -- a childhood treasure she only recently rediscovered -- being No. 1 is the last item left on her bucket list.

"I feel like I've been in this position before, but this is the most comfortable I've been with the sport," Pettersen said, perhaps indicating a new maturity that might lead to greater consistency on the course.

"I guess there's a dream inside of me that kind of still is very much alive, but it's not something that I kind of run around and think about every day," she says of the ideas she expressed in that book on which she put Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Sorenstam on the cover.

Now, she begins the American swing of the 2014 LPGA season, fresh off three promising but winless efforts in Asia and Australia. Her focus is on mechanics and staying mentally in the here and now.

"I've been trying to get a little more speed through impact," Pettersen says simply. "That's pretty much it."

And if she is able to climb over Park to No. 1, that will pretty much be it in terms of that childhood dream book.

Photo: Getty Images
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News & Tours

Inkster to be named 2015 U.S. Solheim Cup captain

By Ron Sirak

PHOENIX, Ariz. - With the United States experiencing the most lopsided beating in Solheim Cup history last August at Colorado Golf Club -- Europe winning for the first time on U.S. soil by a jolting 18-10 margin -- a no-nonsense captain seems logically to change the Americans' fortunes. And it appears they will have just that. 

In a story first reported by Golf World Monday, multiple sources say the LPGA has tapped Juli Inkster to try to lead the U.S. to victory in Germany next year after having lost the last two times in the biennial competition. The 2015 event will be held Sept. 18-20 at St. Leon-Rot.

Multiple sources told Golf World Monday that the official announcement will be made Tuesday at the JTBC Founders Cup. The LPGA declined to comment.


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Juli Inkster, seen here in 2011 during the opening ceremony of the Solheim Cup, is expected to be name the 2015 U.S. captain in the coming days. (Getty Images)

The move has some similarities to the PGA of America's decision to have Tom Watson, as gritty a competitor as you'll find, captain this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team. Inkster, who turns 54 in June, can match Watson grit for grit. A seven-time major champion, Inkster holds the record for most Solheim Cups played (nine) and most points won (18 1/2) by an American. And her 6-1-2 singles mark gives her the most points won in that format by anyone.

There was an eerie feeling in the thin Colorado air seven months ago as the visiting Europeans appeared to be having their "1987 moment." In 1987, Europe won the Ryder Cup on U.S. soil for the first time, giving the men back-to-back victories for the first time in the matches. Since then, they have won seven times with one tie while the Americans have taken home the Cup on just four occasions.
 
While the Americans loved playing for captain Meg Mallon in Colorado and felt so badly about letting her down that most wanted her to be captain again, there were also stories of some overly entitled behavior in the team room. Such antics seemed to carry over on to the course, with the Americans' painted-nail finger-waving celebrations backfiring as they helped motivate Europe.
 
Inkster is noted for having a solid relationship with many young players on the LPGA Tour, a fact she has said over the years has much to do with raising two daughters. "I speak teenager," she has joked.
 
This season, Inkster previously indicated, will be her last year as a full-time LPGA competitor. With $13.6 million, she's fifth on the all-time money list, winning 31 overall titles.
 
Besides her stellar Solheim Cup record, Inkster proved she knows a thing or two about match play by winning three consecutive U.S. Women's Amateur Championships. Now she has to do it as a captain. 


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News & Tours

ShopRite to remain LPGA tournament title sponsor through 2016

By Ron Sirak

ShopRite-logoflag-300.jpgThere is more good news for LPGA commissioner Mike Whan and Jon Podany, his chief marketing officer who left the PGA Tour in 2010 to work with his former Miami of Ohio football teammate. The LPGA has reached a contract extension with Wakefern Food Corp., the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club and Eiger Marketing Group (EMG) to continue sponsorship of the ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer through 2016, sources told GolfDigest.com.

Begun in 1986 as the Atlantic City LPGA Classic, the tournament became known at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in 1992 when Wakefern Food became the title sponsor. It was played through 2006 but was off the LPGA schedule for three seasons before returning 2010. Prior to the extension, Wakefern's sponsorship of the event was set to end after this year's tournament, which will take place May 29-June 1 on the Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway, N.J.
 
Five years into his tenure as commissioner, Whan has the LPGA back up to 32 events on its schedule compared to 23 tournaments when he took over at the start of 2010. During that time the tour has attracted international firms such as Airbus, Yokohama Tires and JTBC, a Korean broadcaster, to sponsor U.S.-based events as well as extending several contracts with American companies.

Since 1992, ShopRite has donated more than $27 million to charities through sponsorship of the event. In 2013 alone, ShopRite raised nearly $1.3 million for charitable organizations, aiding hospitals, food banks, educational institutions and other agencies.

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News & Tours

Salas continues journey from humble beginnings to LPGA success

By Ron Sirak

NASSAU, The Bahamas -- As Lizette Salas approached the 18th green in her Solheim Cup singles match against Suzann Pettersen last August at Colorado GC, her parents, Ramon and Martha, struggled with their emotions as they watched with other family members of the U.S. team.

"You can't imagine what a big deal this is for us, two Mexican immigrants, to see our daughter play for the United States," Martha said. "We are so proud of how well she represents us, our new country and our homeland."

lizette-salas-300.jpgSalas, 24, started her third year on the LPGA this week at the PureSilk Bahamas LPGA Classic, where her second-round 67 in windy weather on The Ocean Club Paradise Island left her at seven under par going to the weekend.

Related: LPGA stats and scores

Her great score amid the breezy conditions came despite playing far less than 100 percent.

"I woke up in tears," she said. "I had flu symptoms, a high fever. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to play. But I'd rather be on the course than in bed crying, feeling sorry for myself."

Her solid round was thanks to a hot putter that included a momentum saving 20-footer for par on No. 16, the hardest hole on the course, and an up-and-down for par from a bunker on No. 17.

"The wind helped me stay cool," said Salas, who finished feeling better but still slightly feverish. "I like using my imagination on the golf course, so playing in the wind challenges me in a way that I like."

Salas' career in golf has been all about challenges, each and every one of which she has conquered. She moved from No. 51 on the 2012 money list to No. 15 last year. Her best finish in a major was sixth in the 2013 Ricoh Women's British Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

What she isn't doing is moving away from her humble roots, where challenge came in daily doses.

Ramon Salas has been a mechanic at Azuza Greens public golf course in Azuza, near Los Angeles, for more than 30 years, and at one point bartered extra work to get golf lessons for his three children. Now, every Tuesday that she is home, Lizette teaches youngsters at Azuza Greens.

"I felt like a weird flower out on the golf course," Lizette says on her website about when she first started playing tournament golf.

"At first, it was really intimidating because I was the only Latina," she says. "My parents helped me through that. I'm from a city that is predominately Hispanic. I want to be a positive role model for the girls in my community and change the stereotypes placed on Hispanics."

And that she is doing. Lizette used golf to earn a scholarship to Southern California, where she became the school's only four-time All-American in any sport, male or female. She also became the first person in her immediate family to graduate college, earning a degree in sociology in 2011.

Now, the 5-foot-4 fireplug who loves Latin dancing is emerging as one of the better players in women's golf, and certainly one of the most-compelling stories.

"I was feeling it and I was rolling it out there today," Salas said with a sly smile after her Friday round that seemed to say, "I just gave you a money quote, be sure to use it."

Lizette comes from outside the golf cookie cutter in just about every way. In that way, she is reminiscent of Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez, two Hall of Famers also with Mexican roots. Whether or not Salas achieves that greatness, she has already been a great role model for her community.

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News & Tours

In first start as LPGA member, Ko doing all the right things

By Ron Sirak

NASSAU, The Bahamas -- As her pro-am group trudged up the 18th fairway after a difficult day battling 40 mph wind, Lydia Ko walked over to the scoreboard well right of the green and apologized to the three men working there.

lydia-ko-300.jpg"Sorry," she said. "We weren't trying, really."

That she took the time to talk to the men as well as generously used the word "we" when it was three of her amateur playing partners who peppered the scoreboard with wayward shots was a perfect example of a maturity that belies Ko's 16 years.

And that maturity, as well as the fact she has won five professional tournaments, two on the LPGA, were among the reasons commissioner Mike Whan gave Lydia an exemption to the minimum-age rule of 18 and extended her an LPGA card for this season.

Related: Leadbetter to tread cautiously with Ko

Ko gave further proof of her maturity, ability and resiliency Thursday when she posted a five-under-par 68 in the first round of the PureSilk Bahamas LPGA Classic, the opening tournament of the season and her first as an LPGA member. At day's end, the score gave her a share of the first-round lead with Meena Lee.

"I got off to a shaky start, leaving myself a four-footer for par on No. 1 [which she made], but that birdie on 2 got me going," Ko said. "I was shocked that I was not more nervous. But my Mom told me yesterday just to have fun. So I just tried to keep positive and hit the while ball."

Clearly she had not been damaged by the play of her amateurs partners a day earlier, of whom I was one. One of the standards to which Whan holds players is their ability to represent the tour in social situations, like pro-ams and the various parties during tournament week, as well as their skill level.

At both the Tuesday night reception in the elegant Royal Tower Hotel and Wednesday at the pro-am on The Ocean Club Paradise Island, Lydia was charming, smart, funny, respectful, inquisitive and completely engaged. There is no doubt Whan made the right call.

Related: Think Young, Play Hard -- Lydia Ko

Ko, a Korean by birth who grew up in New Zealand, appears ready to set up base in Orlando, in part so she can have easy access to her new swing coach, Sean Hogan, at the David Leadbetter Academy. She is also trying out Scott Lubin as her caddie, who has on his resume a six-year stint with Jack Nicklaus.

Lydia's decision to drop the only coach she has had, Guy Wilson, for the Leadbetter connection raised eyebrows in her homeland. "I was so surprised," she said. "I didn't even know it would make a story, but it was like big news in New Zealand, especially within where I was. Everyone was, oh, blah blah blah, and I was really surprised."
 
But like those errant shots off the scoreboard, Ko has put the controversy behind her and moved on. "I talked to a couple other players, and they supported me," Ko said. "I had to do what was the best for me and my situation, and a lot of other people gave me support in that, as well."
 
It's early, to be sure, but after the first round of the first tournament of the LPGA season, and in her first start as a tour member, Ko appears to be doing all the right things. And not a lot of 16-year-olds can say that. She sure seems like the early favorite for Rookie of the Year, and don't be surprised if she contends for Player of the Year as well.
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