Catching Up With ... Billy Tuten

Two-time APL champion, 1983 Walker Cup participant now coaching high school team in Houston

By David Shefter, USGA
January 17, 2012

Two-time U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Billy Tuten (second from right) has found a niche coaching players at St. Thomas High in Houston. His current team includes standouts Juan Gutierrez (right), Richard Le (left) and Thomas Wheeler. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

Sugar Land, Texas – Dressed in matching red shirts, white shorts and golf shoes with ‘STH’ monogrammed on the heels, three members of the St. Thomas High boys’ golf team gather around a svelte middle-aged man on the driving range of Sugar Creek Country Club on a sunny late-September afternoon.

They chat about the upcoming season, the roster and possible new attire. Then seniors Juan Gutierrez and Richard Le, along with junior Thomas Wheeler, disperse and begin hitting shots under the watchful eye of the white-haired man, who wears sunglasses to shield his eyes from the piercing Texas sun.

 

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Wheeler calls the coach over to look at his swing plane. Is it too flat? The coach places his hands on Wheeler’s arms and elbows and demonstrates a higher takeaway. The 16-year-old from The Woodlands intently absorbs the information, then makes the slight adjustment. It will take time for function to follow form.

Le, who hasn’t picked up a club in four weeks, also wants an opinion. The coach is immediately impressed that there isn’t much rust with his ball-striking. “He’s my best player,” the coach tells a visitor. “He hasn’t hit a ball in a month and look at him.”

Gutierrez, a strapping 6-foot-5 Venezuelan who enrolled at the all-boys private school last year, stands between Le and Wheeler lacing 5-iron lasers, each with a slight right-to-left draw. Then he pulls out the driver and puts on a show, launching rockets toward the back of the range, some 290 yards from the tee.

“He’s got a lot of potential,” says the coach of Gutierrez, who looks like he could play linebacker or tight end on the school’s football team. “[College] recruiters are starting to get on him.”

One look at the coach’s résumé, and it’s obvious that he is well acquainted with the buzz of college recruiters. It includes two USGA titles, one Walker Cup, one Masters and three U.S. Open appearances, and 20 years of professional tour golf, including one full season on the PGA Tour in 1989.

This is where you’ll find Billy Tuten, who this summer celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first of his two consecutive U.S. Amateur Public Links championships.

Since retiring from competitive golf in 2004, Tuten has traded playing for coaching. For the past six years, he has supplemented income from private instruction by serving as the head coach of the St. Thomas High boys’ golf team. When he’s not at St. Thomas, you can find Tuten instructing golfers of all ages and abilities at Pine Crest Country Club, a public course in Houston. Although not a Class A PGA of America teaching professional, Tuten’s resume and reputation attract clients.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Wheeler of having Tuten as the team’s coach. “You have a lot of trust in what he’s doing because he’s been in that position before.”

Added Le, who is contemplating attending the University of Pennsylvania: “It’s awesome. He’s got so much experience. He just knows so much about the game and he really helps us with it. It doesn’t hurt to get advice from him.”

Thirty years ago, Tuten was one of the country’s elite amateurs. Starting with the 1979 U.S. Junior Amateur, he advanced to four USGA championship finals in five years – he was an APL semifinalist in 1980 – and compiled a remarkable match-play record, including his two 1983 Walker Cup singles matches, of 30-6. Few male players outside of Tiger Woods (42-3 from 1990-96) can boast such an impressive USGA match-play winning percentage over that short a span of time.

In 1983, his last full year as an amateur, Tuten not only defended his APL title, he also won the prestigious Western Amateur, which features 72 holes of stroke play, followed by four 18-hole match-play rounds over a two-day period.

Following his 1984 Masters appearance, Tuten turned pro and played on a variety of circuits until 2004. That’s when he decided that tour life not only wasn’t financially stable, but it also hindered life at home with his wife, Holly, daughter Blakely, 20, and son Will, 13.

Teaching and coaching keep the former University of Houston standout connected to a game he instantly fell in love with 43 years ago. That passion is still evident, whether it’s the energy he brings as a coach or during a rare round on the course.

“One of my goals is to create a passion for the game,” said Tuten. “I tell my students that if you work hard, you can improve. You can make a lifetime sport out of it, whether they are an insurance agent who can shoot 80 and generate business or a tour player.”

Hooked For Life 

Palatka, Fla., is a small northeast Florida town of slightly more than 10,000 residents. It is home to the Georgia Pacific Company, the largest private employer in the city, which manufactures pulp, paper and plywood. It is also home to St. Johns River State College, a two-year community college, where Tuten’s father, also named William, served as a coach and athletic director for 38 years. The school’s gymnasium now bears his father’s name.

The elder Tuten was a very good athlete, talented enough to earn an invitation to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla. Neither Billy nor William Tuten could recall the year, but William eventually wound up in coaching. At St. Johns, he coached baseball, basketball, cross country, softball and tennis before moving into an administrative role.

The younger Tuten’s love of golf first came through his mother, who played in a monthly nine-hole ladies league at the local municipal course. Billy would tag along and push his mom’s cart, until he picked up one of her clubs and got hooked at age 7.

When he began showing promise, his father, who has only broken 80 once, started entering him in 21 Club tournaments, the name derived from the 21 points awarded to the winner. Young Billy started consistently winning these events, all within a 50-mile radius of Palatka. By the time he was 10, he had captured the 10-11 division of the International Pee Wee Tournament at Cypress Creek Golf Club in Orlando. He later claimed the 11-12 division of the Future Masters in Dothan, Ala., an event he would also win as an 18-year-old in 1980.

During the summer, instead of sun bathing at the beach or hanging out with friends, Tuten would sling his bag over his shoulder and ride his bike every day to Palatka’s public course.

“I know I was obsessive-compulsive about golf,” said Tuten. “But I never got burned out. I think that’s why I could beat a lot of the kids because I worked at it a lot. I was at the golf course constantly.”

It was there that he befriended Ivan Gantz, a former PGA Tour player from Indiana who ran the driving range. Nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” for his spontaneous outbursts on the course, Gantz parked his trailer behind the clubhouse at Palatka G.C. and began mentoring junior golfers free of charge. Tuten became one of his star pupils.

“If I ever had any instruction early on it was from Ivan,” said Tuten.

When Tuten was 15, he started consistently beating players three years his senior. Colleges soon started recruiting him, including Clemson and East Tennessee State, but Florida and Florida State were not suitors. When the University of Houston contacted him, Tuten was sold. Coach Dave Williams had built a dynasty with the Cougars that included players such as Fred Couples, Fuzzy Zoeller, Steve Elkington, Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke. Billy Ray Brown was a teammate of Tuten’s.

Tuten’s competitive fire fit perfectly with Williams’ program.

Even before Tuten set foot on campus, he finished runner-up at two major golf events in the summer of 1979: the American Junior Golf Association’s Tournament of Champions at Inverrary C.C. in Fort Lauderdale and the U.S. Junior Amateur at Moss Creek in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

That U.S. Junior was Tuten’s first USGA experience, and for some reason Tuten carried only 13 clubs in the championship. Tuten, who was named an AJGA First-Team All-American in 1979, doesn’t recall why he competed with one less than the maximum allowed. The Golf Journal story by Charles Price had Tuten commenting that a 14th club could not improve his game, but Tuten disputes the quote. “I never talked to a single reporter all week,” he said.

Such braggadocio would not have been in his character.

“I remembered him as a quiet, shy kid,” said former USGA senior director of Rules and Competitions Tom Meeks, who worked the APL for 20-plus years. “He was a really nice kid. That’s what I remember about him.”

That week, Tuten also eschewed the use of a caddie, preferring to make all his decisions alone.

With his father watching, Tuten advanced to the championship match to face Jack Larkin of Atlanta. Tuten, just eight days shy of his 18th birthday, struggled with his driver for most of the 18-hole final, but never trailed by more than two holes. Displaying the grit that fueled him throughout his career, Tuten hung in with some brilliant bunker play before finally squaring the match at No. 17 with a par.

At the 18th hole, Tuten hit what he thought was a perfect drive. The ball hit a mound and squirted into the left rough, leaving him an impossible approach to the green. A pine tree prevented him from making a full swing, which led to a poorly executed second shot that went deeper into the woods. The ball was never found, so Tuten conceded the hole and match.

A few weeks later, Tuten entered the next chapter of his career.

Cougar Town 

Coach Williams recruited lots of players for Houston; there were 13 freshmen on the 1979-80 team and 27 players overall. He reasoned that if he got a talented player, it was one less player for the competition. Some of these stockpiled players eventually transferred, while others, like future CBS Sports play-by-play man Jim Nantz, stuck it out to be a part of the winning environment. 

 

 b_Tuten82APLTrophy 
The first of Billy Tuten's consecutive APL triumphs came in 1982. (USGA Museum) 

Tuten relished the challenge. He wanted to be pushed by better players.

“Billy had a look in his eye,” said Paul Marchand, the head professional at Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond, Texas, site of the 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur, and a 1980 University of Houston graduate. “He was somewhat oblivious to anything else going on around him. He had what I thought was a really effective game, a really effective golf swing. It was uncomplicated. He didn’t try to do too much with it that he couldn’t do.”

Tuten cracked the lineup that fall and immediately won his first college tournament, an event held in Shreveport, La., where he was paired with Hal Sutton of Centenary College, who would win the U.S. Amateur the following summer before a fruitful PGA Tour career. If Tuten was intimidated, he didn’t show it.

Unfortunately, that was the highlight of his freshman campaign. By the end of the spring semester, Tuten had to leave Houston for academic reasons.

“I never skipped a class in my life until I went to college,” said Tuten. “In college [as I found out], the teachers don’t care [if you attend class].”

Tuten spent his sophomore year at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla. Before enrolling, however, Tuten qualified for the 1980 APL at Edgewood Tahoe G.C. in Stateline, Nev., where he advanced to the semifinals.

“I played well in 1980,” said Tuten. “I struck it good. I don’t know how it went bad. I just knew it went bad. At that point in my career, I wasn’t accustomed to giving up leads.”

Tuten was 2 up on Rick Gordon with eight holes to play in that semifinal match, yet lost, 3 and 1.

Later that summer, Tuten fell in the second round of the U.S. Amateur to future Walker Cup teammate Bob Lewis Jr., 1 down, at The Country Club of North Carolina.

With his academics now in order, Tuten returned to Houston for his junior year in the fall of 1981. Williams was more than willing to accept him back.

“Coach really believed in loyalty,” said Marchand. “Guys did leave [the program] and didn’t come back. When Billy left it was a surprise. [But Billy] had that quality that Coach [Williams] really looked for.”

Earlier that summer, Tuten qualified for another APL, this time advancing to the championship match to face defending champion and Georgia Southern All-American Jodie Mudd at Bear Creek Golf World’s Masters Course in Houston.

 

The experienced Mudd would prevail, 3 and 2, in a match that was not as close as the score would indicate. Tuten acknowledged not having his best stuff. All week he had scraped and clawed through his matches. In essence, Tuten had done enough to survive.

“I don’t remember anything about playing good that week,” said Tuten, who would help Houston to the 1982 NCAA Division I title the following spring. “Maybe every match I had [until the final], the other guy played poorly. It was a fortunate week.”

A Little Championship Luck 

In the early 1980s, the USGA granted only the defending champion an exemption into the following year’s APL. As he had the two previous years, Tuten signed up for the Jacksonville sectional qualifier, but only played well enough to earn first-alternate status.

Tuten thought he had the week off, until an unexpected phone call came from the USGA. Christopher Young, one of the Jacksonville qualifiers, had been forced to withdraw due to work commitments. Tuten now had just a few days to get to Eagle Creek G.C. in Indianapolis and find his game. It didn’t take him long. He shot 142 in qualifying to finish two strokes off medalist honors, and only once in six matches leading to the final did he come close to losing, in a 21-hole, second-round decision over Gary Hitch, from Ventura, Calif.

Brad Heninger, his opponent in the 36-hole final, struggled at the outset with two quick bogeys and Tuten cruised to a 6-and-5 victory. That elusive USGA title was finally his.

“I never laid in bed and thought once about [winning the title],” said Tuten of his mindset. “I was just in the moment. I was just born that way. I was highly focused. I had tunnel vision and was determined. And I was not intimidated by anybody.”

According to the Golf Journal story, Tuten was believed to be the first alternate to win a USGA title. The feat has since been achieved by others, including D.J. Trahan at the 2000 APL, Greg Reynolds at the 2002 USGA Senior Amateur and Mike Bell at the 2006 USGA Senior Amateur.

“There were so many good players on our team that when someone did something good, it didn’t always surprise you,” said Tuten’s ex-Houston teammate and good friend Mike Neece. Neece and Tuten entered and left Houston at the same time. “[The APL title] was almost expected because the guy was so good. He was always really good at match play.”

Added Tuten: “I don’t have a magical formula of why I beat people. I just didn’t get as nervous or anxious as the rest of them. It’s like I tell the kids on my [high school] team, it’s OK to be nervous, but that doesn’t mean you are scared.”

Walker Cup And Second APL Title 

By the following spring, Tuten was one of the country’s best amateurs, along with Jay Sigel, Bob Lewis, Jim Holtgrieve and Willie Wood, the 1977 U.S. Junior champion and Oklahoma State standout who beat him at the AJGA Tournament of Champions in 1979.

The USGA invited him to play in the 1983 Walker Cup Match at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake). It was Tuten’s first trip overseas and he was thrilled to be representing his country in one of amateur golf’s most prestigious competitions. He also knew that a Walker Cup berth meant an invitation to the 1984 Masters

 

 b_Tuten1983WalkerCup 
Billy Tuten (back row, third from left) went 1-1 in singles to help the USA win the 1983 Walker Cup Match at Royal Liverpool. (USGA Museum) 

“I was pumped,” he said. “I looked at it like I had made the American Olympic Team for golf. I wanted to represent the USGA and our country well.”

Tuten also discovered at that Walker Cup Match just how zealous some spectators can get. During his Sunday singles match against Martin Thompson, some fans raucously cheered when Tuten missed a putt to lose a hole. Tuten channeled his emotion and immediately holed a 30-foot birdie putt at the next hole. He would win the match, 3 and 2, and the USA broke an 8-8 tie by claiming 5½ points out of a possible eight in singles to post a 13½-10½ victory.

At lunch prior to that Sunday’s singles session, Tuten may have made his biggest impact. As playing captain Jay Sigel was going down the list of golfers who had played and hadn’t played over the first three sessions, Tuten stood up unannounced to make a statement.

 “We have 250 million people across that pond who are expecting us to bring back that trophy, so this is no time to be democratic,” Tuten told the team. “Put out the lineup that gives us the best chance to win the Match this afternoon. And if it doesn’t include me, I am fine with that. Let’s just win this thing and we’ll worry about who got to play afterward.”

Added Holtgrieve, a playing member of three USA Teams who captained the 2011 side at Royal Aberdeen: “Billy had a lot of guts.”

When Tuten finished speaking, the team was unified in fielding its best singles lineup and the USA went on to defeat Great Britain and Ireland.

“That definitely was one of the most memorable weeks of my life,” said Tuten. “There were [TV] cameras all over the place. How many times do they play the national anthem before you tee off? You knew something special was going on.”

Tuten completed his college eligibility that spring and then successfully defended his APL title, becoming just the fourth golfer since the event began in 1922 to win consecutive championships.

This time, Tuten defeated David Hobby in the 36-hole championship match at Hominy Hill G.C. in Colts Neck, N.J., 3 and 1.

Tuten acknowledged not feeling any pressure that week to defend. His match-play demeanor never wavered. His motto: Just beat the next man up and be the last guy standing.

But the final match was hardly a walkover. Hobby, a college player from San Diego State, held a 4-up lead with 15 to play, and Tuten appeared to have run out of good fortune. The competitor in Tuten never wavered, however. He birdied Holes 22, 23 and 25 and took the 26th hole with a par to square the match. Hobby eagled the par-5 27th hole with a 40-foot putt to regain his 1-up lead, but Tuten took No. 28 with a par. When Hobby’s tee shot at the 29th hole found a pond, Tuten led for good.

Afterward, Tuten admitted to being “scared to death” when he was 4 down, but Hobby said, “…the better player won today.”

Without Facebook or Twitter to provide immediacy to the accomplishment, word eventually trickled back to campus.

“We didn’t have the Internet back then,” said Neece. “But when I heard he won that second one, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

With his college eligibility complete, Tuten spent the next six months finishing his degree requirements and gearing up for his final tournament as an amateur. Almost every golfer dreams of playing at Augusta National in early April and Tuten was going to fulfill that aspiration.

Eager to see one of the grand cathedrals in the game, Tuten was one of the first players to register. He received badge No. 2 – badge No. 1 was reserved for defending champion Seve Ballesteros.

During a quiet practice round on the Saturday prior to the event, Tuten found himself on the par-3 fourth green when another competitor approached the tee. He waved the player through and when Jack Nicklaus approached with his caddie Angelo Argea, Nicklaus asked Tuten if he wanted to join him. Nervous and intimidated, Tuten turned down the offer three times.

“I was too scared to go,” recalled Tuten. “It’s something I regret.”

Tuten played a Wednesday practice round with Houston alum Fred Couples, 1982 U.S. Open champion Tom Watson and Bob Gilder. He also participated in the Par-3 Contest, but he doesn’t recall much else from the week.

He didn’t stay in the Crow’s Nest, the clubhouse room reserved for amateur participants, but he did accidentally enter the Champions’ Locker Room before a security guard politely asked him to vacate the premises.

“I saw all the green coats hanging in there,” said Tuten. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

Tuten, still bothered by a thumb injury he sustained a few months earlier from slamming a 6-iron into the ground, unceremoniously missed the cut (80-75) and returned to Houston to begin what he thought would be a successful professional career.

Playing For Pay 

Perhaps Tuten’s professional debut was a harbinger. He shot 74-70 at the Coca-Cola Houston Open and missed the cut. Over the next 20 years, there would be plenty of missed cuts.

For some reason, his professional career never matched his tremendous amateur success. Tuten loved the head-to-head aspect of match play, but in stroke play, he was up against everyone in the field. He admitted to occasionally losing focus, something that rarely happened in USGA amateur competitions.

Tuten wasn’t a total failure; he won a few mini-tour events and eventually landed his PGA Tour card for the 1989 season. But in 25 events that year, he made just 11 cuts and earned $27,135, ending up No. 184 on the money list.

Three years later on the Ben Hogan Tour (now Nationwide Tour), he competed in 22 events, making nine cuts and earning $7,455.

“To me, he was always one of those can’t-miss guys,” said Neece, who also played professionally for five years before becoming a successful businessman in the Dallas area. “He was an incredible ball-striker and a good putter. But you had to be a great putter to make a living out there. Every one of those guys out there on tour can putt.”

 

Billy Tuten File 
Born: Palatka, Fla.
Residence: Houston, Texas
College: University of Houston
Occupation: High school golf coach; golf instructor
1979 AJGA All-American
1979 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up
1980 U.S. Amateur Public Links semifinalist
1981 U.S. Amateur Public Links runner-up
1982 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion
1983 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion
1983 Western Amateur champion
1983 USA Walker Cup Team
1984 Masters (missed cut)
1990 U.S. Open (T-24)
Best PGA Tour finish: T-11 (1990 Chattanooga Classic)

Retired from professional golf: 2004 

That’s not to say there weren’t some highlights. In 1990, he tied for 11th at the Chattanooga Classic, a PGA Tour event, and qualified for the U.S. Open at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, where he made the cut and finished at 1-under 287, good enough for a share of 24th. In the final round, he played with a young 17-year-old amateur from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., named David Duval. “He got lucky to play with me,” said Tuten of the young star who hailed from the same region in Florida. Tuten shot 71, Duval a 77.

“I remember that I made a 30-footer [for birdie] to finish the tournament,” continued Tuten, proud that he completed 72 holes in the red. “Not a whole lot of people on the planet can say they shot under par for 72 holes in a major. There are a lot of them who have done it, but a lot of them are the same people. I enjoyed that week. It’s one of my best as far as a PGA Tour performance.”

But as the cheap motels, diners and road trips started to become more of a burden, Tuten realized it might be time to retire. Most of the decision was financial. He wasn’t making enough money to keep the number of annual events at a manageable number. His daughter was about to enter high school and his son was getting active in sports. He was also 41 years old.

Fancy cars and big houses were never important to Tuten. He just wanted to make enough to support his family.

“I didn’t want to be out playing a tournament thinking what third place was worth,” he said. “I never lost money [on tour]. It was a matter of the ends not justifying the means. If I was making $500,000 or $750,000, then it would have been a different story.

“If it is just the money that motivates you, then you probably won’t be successful. I enjoyed playing pro golf and enjoyed being around professionals. Being respected by your peers as a pro is different than being respected by your peers as an amateur.”

A Second Career 

Tuten finally left tour golf in 2004, athough he dabbled a little bit, reaching the sectional stage of U.S. Open qualifying several times.

In 2002, he played the U.S. Open sectional at Shadow Hawk G.C. and finished by going birdie-ace-birdie and sharing medalist honors with four players. But only two spots were available. On the first playoff hole – the par-5 first hole – Tuten found a greenside bunker in two shots, failed to get his ball out on his third shot, then got up and down for par. A USGA official called him over as he started walking to the second tee. Tuten apparently had unknowingly touched the sand with his wedge between his third and fourth shots, costing him a two-stroke penalty. He’s one of the few golfers from an Open sectional to receive a medalist medal and not make the field.

A half-hour later, Tuten had put the disappointment aside and was at a nearby Chuck E. Cheese celebrating his son’s fourth birthday.

“I was always good about leaving golf on the course,” said Tuten, “whether it was good or bad. When I got on the road after a tournament, I didn’t obsess over [what happened]. You play pro golf long enough and you get used to being knocked around like a bowling pin.”

Tuten had already transitioned himself from tour player to instructor.

It was one of Tuten’s students (Matt Rogers who led him to St. Thomas. Rogers’ father called Tuten one day to inquire about his interest in filling the school’s vacant coaching position.

St. Thomas is a private all-boys high school with plenty of financial resources. Its current baseball coach is former Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio. The football coach, Donald Hollas, played in the NFL.

Tuten, who had no previous coaching experience, did have some aspirations of coaching in college, so he thought the high school job might be a stepping stone.

“I wanted to try and get the job at UH,” said Tuten of his alma mater. “But that job wasn’t going to open up for at least three or four years. At least I would have experience organizing travel, etc.”

Tuten, who also teaches a golf class at an area junior college, landed the job and has been invigorated by the challenge. Last year, St. Thomas finished fourth in the state among the parochial schools in its division. Most of the team’s tournaments are outside of Houston and they even fly to some events, including the season-opener in El Paso. Tuten has inquired about playing tournaments in California or Nevada, but the high school seasons in those golf-rich states don’t match up.

Coaching high school players keeps Tuten young. His passion for the game remains the same as it was 43 years ago when he first began playing in Palatka.

He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll coach. The desire to compete lingers, and now that he has turned 50, Tuten is entertaining aspirations of the Champions Tour, or attempting to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open. In mid-October, he finished T-14 at the Texas Senior Open at Victoria C.C. south of Houston, shooting 72-74-72.

Once the high school season ends next spring, he plans to compete more regularly.

Playing a round at Shadow Hawk with a visitor in September, Tuten showed flashes of the player who reached four USGA finals in five years. He might have lost a little distance, but the swing mechanics and short game are sharp.

Now that his son is in high school and his daughter is nearly finished with college at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Tuten might have more time to devote to his own game.

But if it doesn’t happen, Tuten won’t fret or agonize over what transpired in his golf career.

“If my kids grow up and are successful in life, that will make me happy,” he said. “My goal in life was never to make $20 million. My goal in life was to marry a good woman, which I have done, and raise my kids properly.

“I look back on my career and what I did, and it was pretty darn good. I did my best and sacrificed a lot. I just wasn’t good enough to play out there on a weekly basis. And that’s OK.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org. 

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