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The Origins of Golf in the Shinnecock Hills, A Confused History

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I’d always been somewhat confused at the origins and early evolution of Shinnecock Hills, so I decided to take a look.  Namely, I was interested in sorting out the involvement of William Dunn, who was an early professional at Shinnecock, and William Davis, the professional at Royal Montreal, in the early 1890’s and who became the professional at Newport in 1893. Each has been credited for creating the original 12 hole course at Shinnecock.  Which Willie did what and when?  Did Davis design the dozen, or Dunn?  

To me at least, the answer to the questions is only part of the story. What I found interesting is how much confusion there has been over this issue, and the surprising sources who may have inadvertently created some of the confusion. To my mind this issue provides a very good example of just how these stories can get a bit mixed up over the years, even by what ought to be the most reliable sources.    

I’ll start by briefly mentioning what Robert Whitten called “Shinnecock’s club history”.   I haven’t read the history, but according to Whitten, the history credited Dunn with laying out the original course of a dozen holes. So in a 2004 Golf Digest article Whitten attempted to set the record straight, describing the creation of the course as follows:

The original 12-hole course of Shinnecock Hills was designed in 1891 by Willie Davis, a Brit who had emigrated to Montreal in 1890 and was summoned to Long Island by Shinnecock's founders. Shinnecock's club history, which credits the original design to young Willie Dunn, has it wrong. Willie Dunn was brought in after Davis moved on to lay out Newport (R.I.) Country Club in 1894. Dunn remodeled and expanded the original course to an 18-hole layout in 1895. (Dunn had previously added a nine-hole ladies course, called the Red Course.) As the New York Times reported on March 8, 1896, "After Willie Davis went to Newport, Willie Dunn, one of the most celebrated Scotch professionals that has ever come to America, was secured to take charge of the grounds, and a great deal of the excellence which they possess today, as well as some of their most characteristic features, are due to Willie Dunn's ideas."

Whitten’s explanation seemed straight forward enough, yet I recalled having read a detailed description of Willie Dunn creating the course.   The account appeared in a September 1934 article in Golf Illustrated titled “Early Courses of the United States” and was written by Willie Dunn himself.   Here are excerpts of Willie Dunn’s recollections regarding the creation of Shinnecock:  

       The Shinnecock course owes its beginning not to Scotland, where the game originated, but to France. It was in France that three American sportsmen, W. K. Vanderbilt, Edward S. Meade, and Duncan Cryder, first became interested in the game and got the idea of building a course in the States.
        In 1889 I was engaged in laying out an 18 hole course at Biarritz, France.  Biarritz at that time was a small village, and there were few tourists from America. I had nearly completed the Biarritz links when I met Vanderbilt, Meade and Cryder. They showed real interest in the game from the beginning; I remember the first demonstration I gave them. We chose the famous Chasm hole — about 225 yards and featuring a deep canyon cleared with the tee shot; I teed up several balls and laid them all on the green, close to the flag. Vanderbilt turned to his friends and said, "Gentlemen, this beats rifle shooting distance and accuracy." Soon afterwards these men asked me to come to America and build a golf course there. I was very pleased and sailed as soon as the now world-famous Biarritz links was completed.
       I arrived in March of 1890, and Vanderbilt took me out to Long Island to the site of the proposed course.  It was in Shinnecock Hills, just two miles from the Shinnecock Indian Reservation and three miles from Southampton. The land was rolling and sandy, with thick growths of blueberry bushes in some places. I laid out plans for twelve holes and started work with one hundred and fifty Indians from the reservation, the only available labor. Except for several horse drawn road scrapers, all the work was done by hand.  The fairways were cleared off, and the natural grass left in; the rough was very rough –with clothes-ripping blueberries, large boulders and many small gullies.
       The place was dotted with Indian burial mounds and we left some of these as bunkers in front of the holes.  Others we scooped out and made into yawning bunkers, and sand-traps.  It was in these traps that the Indian workemen would bury their empty whiskey bottles.  We did not find out this until later when playing the course.   One never knew what an explosion shot out the sand trap would bring out a couple of fire-water flasks, or perhaps a bone or two.  
       The greens were made with sod taken from neighboring estates, using just ordinary lawn grass. Watering the greens was accomplished by placing a barrel on a wagon, tapping at the bottom with a sprinkler attached hose, and squeezing the barrel until the last drop was forced out. These green averaged about forty feet square and were placed on little slopes or in slight hollows, so that some masterful pitching and chip shots were required. The first clubhouse resembled a road-side hot dog stand, and I trained little Indian boys for caddies. These little red-skins took great delight in chasing out skunks, which were very abundant in that locality, often rendering certain holes unplayable for several hours at a time. During one friendly practice game, I remember, one of my drives made a direct hit on a skunk who immediately released a cloud of poisonous gas and refused to move away from the ball; I conceded the hole to my opponent, Eddie Bell – a New York socialite and also a crack sprinter.  Another natural hazard was provided by huge bald eagles who would sometimes pick up balls and carry them out over the bay.
        The first members of this club were a group of New Yorkers.  General Thomas H. Barber was the president, Samuel L. Parrish, the first secretary.
. . .  

Did the Shinnecock club history have had it right, and Whitten wrong?  After all, this was written by Willie Dunn himself, and Dunn not only claimed to have created the twelve-hole course, he described the process in great detail. Of course a few of his facts may not be quite right, for example his date seems off. According to a number of contemporaneous accounts, golf began at Shinnecock in 1891, not 1890.  Also, Dunn’s description intimates that W.K. Vanderbilt was involved in the creation of the club. (Possibly because of this, many of the more recent accounts also include Vanderbilt as having been involved.)  But W. K. Vanderbilt was not listed as one of the founding members, and I have yet to find any contemporaneous mention of Vanderbilt having been involved with the creation of the either the golf course or club.  So far as I know Vanderbilt was closely associated with the creation of the Newport Country Club in 1893.  [Not 1894 as is sometimes given as the date.]

But surely mistakes with a date and possibly a with name are understandable. After all, Dunn was in his seventies when he wrote this, and was recalling events that had happened over 30 years prior.  So I don’t think we can discount his recollection easily, especially because he not only remembers designing and building the 12-hole course, he recalls it in great detail.  Still though, something did not quite add up.  I had always read that Willie Dunn did not come to the United States until 1893.  For example, the usually reliable Golf Book of East Lothian, written in 1896 by John Kerr, reported on pages 336-337, “In 1893 [Dunn] left England for America to act as professional to Shinnecock Golf Club, the most important of the among the new clubs started in America.”   And I have been unable to find any record of him coming over before 1893, not even a travel manifest.  And the first newspaper accounts I have found mentioning Dunn in America are from 1893, including those 1893 accounts of his money match play against – you guessed it  – W.D. (“Willie”) Davis, the professional at Newport Country Club.    

But then perhaps he was here and I just I haven’t been able find record of it. There were a plenty of Dunns who came over around then, and one of them might have been him.  And given that golf was almost completely unknown over here, who knows what they would have listed as his occupation.  So maybe I just haven’t found the evidence that he was here. After all, given his detailed description of creating the twelve-hole course, how could it not have been Dunn?   Especially because Samuel L. Parrish, who was mentioned above by Dunn and who served as the first Club Secretary of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, seemed to think so.  

Around 1923, the President of the club, de Lancey Koutnze, apparently asked Mr. Parrish to write down his recollections of the origins of golf in America, and more particularly, the origins of golf Shinnecock Hills.  Mr. Parrish was originally from Pennsylvania and had been a prominent attorney in Philadelphia before moving his successful practice to New York.  He had a strong interest in Italian Art, summered in Southampton, created what would become the Parrish Art Museum to house his personal collection, and was actively involved in the administration of Shinnecock Hills and as well as the USGA.  If anyone should know what happened at Shinnecock it was Samuel L. Parrish.

By the time Parrish wrote his reflections on Shinnecock, he was around 73 years old, and was the only surviving member of the original Shinnecock Board of Trustees, and one of only four surviving of the original seventeen who met in 1891 and decided to form the golf club.  Still, given his age, Mr. Parrish’s account is remarkably informative and detailed, especially given that it was written 32 years after the fact.  It is also quite entertaining and included a number of personal anecdotes such as his description of the first time a golf ball was struck at Shinnecock, his story of an early driving contest of sorts, a contast producing perhaps the earliest American example of a ridiculously long drive.  It can be read in full by following this thread.  Here, though, I am primarily interested in Parrish’s description of the creation and evolution of the golf courses, which Parrish briefly summarized as follows:

The original course, as laid out by Willie Dunn in the summer
of 1891, consisted of 12 holes, the object of selecting that number instead of eighteen having been, as I remember, for the purpose 
of conserving our resources in the interest of improving both the 
fair green and the putting greens. Shortly thereafter, the links
having become somewhat congested, an additional nine-hole 
course was constructed for the exclusive use of the women players. This distinction between men and women players having created a certain amount of dissatisfaction, the new nine-hole
 course was soon abandoned in favor of a single eighteen-hole course. Later on, still further changes were made when all the
 kind south of the railroad track was abandoned in favor of the
 present links, situated exclusively north of the railroad.

Jackpot!  Samuel L. Parrish clearly stated that Willie Dunn designed the original golf course of twelve holes in the summer of 1891.  And remember, Parrish had been the original Secretary of the club when it was formed 1891, so surely he ought to have known who created the original course.  And he remembered it in vivid detail.  For example, as you will see in the extended quote below, Parrish didn’t just identify Willie Dunn as the one who created the original course, he also provided many details surrounding the creation of the course, many of which seem to corroborate Willie Dunn’s later account.  For instance, Parrish briefly mentioned the now famous trip to Biarritz taken by a few of his friends, where those friends were first exposed to the game. This was presumably the same trip that would later be described by Dunn.  And Parrish also noted that he himself first took Dunn out into the Shinnecock Hills and they eventually find a site suitable for golf among the bushes and sand hills.  As mentioned above, he even described hitting the first golf ball on what would become the golf links of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.  And while their versions differed slightly (Dunn included Vanderbuilt, Parrish did not; Dunn said 1890, Parrish 1891,) the two seem to have been on the same page regarding Dunn’s creation of the original course.

[Continued In Next Post]

[Continued from Above]

So Willie Dunn and the club secretary at the time, Samuel L. Parrish, both recalled that Willie Dunn created the original course at Shinnecock. Mystery solved?   Not quite.  Perhaps a few of you might have already noticed a yellow flag or two in Parrish’s summary recollection.  And upon reading a more complete version of Parrish’s account those familiar with Whitten’s version of Shinnecock’s history will notice what else seems amiss.  Here again are Parrish’s recollections, including the above quote, but with also the description of events surrounding the creation of the original golf course:

      It was then, while traveling in Italy in the Spring of 1891,
that I received a letter from Biarritz, France, from my friend,
the late Duncan Cryder, a summer resident of Southampton, in
which he stated that he and our mutual friend, the late Edward 
S. Mead, were passing the winter at Biarritz and that they had
 both become greatly interested in a game called "golf," (my first introduction to the word) which they thought might be successfully introduced at Southampton, and played, possibly, on the Shinnecock Hills.
 I replied that I was very sorry, but that all my plans had been made to pass the spring in travel with friends in Italy, but
that as Mr. Mead and I were both about to return home we could 
talk the matter over at Southampton. Upon meeting there in 
the early summer of 1891, Mr. Mead so successfully communicated his enthusiasm for the game to the late General Thomas H.
 Barber and myself that we asked the late Charles L. Atterbury, who was about to visit Montreal on a business trip, if he would
interview the authorities of the Royal Montreal Golf Club (organized in 1873, the oldest golf club in Canada, and therefore in the western hemisphere), and arrange with them to have their professional come to Southampton and look the ground over. As the result of this interview, the Scotch Canadian professional, Willie Dunn by name, arrived at Southampton with clubs and balls in the early part of July, 1891, consigned to me.
         Immediately upon his arrival we drove out to the Shinnecock
 Hills, but had proceeded only a few hundred yards beyond the 
site of the present Art Village, where the brush then was and
still is very thick, when Dunn turned to me and remarked in a somewhat crestfallen manner that he was sorry that we had been
put to so much trouble and expense, but that no golf course could
be made on land of that character. We had already turned our faces homeward toward Southampton when I said to Dunn:
"Well, Dunn, what do you want?" thinking perhaps that trees or other natural obstacles were needed for the ground, my knowledge of the requirements of a golf course being at that time
 exceedingly hazy. He then explained that ground capable of
 being turned into some sort of turf was necessary, whereat my face brightened into a smile, for I knew every section of the 4,000
acres of the Hills, having often ridden over them, riding, bicycling, and lawn tennis having been at that time almost the only active outdoor exercises in our community. I then drove him to a spot
in the valley lying between the low hills now occupied by the houses of James C. Parrish and Arthur B. Claflin, the valley then, as now, being composed of a sandy soil comparatively free from brush, and capable of some sort of treatment appropriate for golf
at a reasonable outlay of time and money.
 Dunn then teed up a ball (one of the old-fashioned gutta-
percha kind) and handed me a driver. By some fortunate dispensation of Providence, I happened to make a drive (all but too 
frequently failing since of repetition in my thirty-two years of 
golf), and the ball went sailing over the embankment of the
railroad track at what used to be the old seventh hole, while we
 still played on the south side of the railroad, this then having been
 the first golf ball ever struck on the Shinnecock Hills.  
It is needless to recall here the experience of thousands, and
perhaps hundreds of thousands, of American golfers since July,
1891, when I say that I at once became a convert to, and devoted ollower of, the game. Upon Mead's return to Southampton at
the end of that week (he was a very busy man) I related to him my
experience, and that of others who had taken advantage of Dunn's
presence in Southampton to try their hands at the drive, with a
result similar in each case to my own, and, with General Barber
and George R. Schieffelin as driving forces in seconding Mead's
enthusiastic interest, it was decided that we should start in to
raise at least the sum of three thousand dollars for the purpose
of clearing the land, making simple putting greens and constructing such primitive accommodations for the players, including a
 horse shed, as our means would permit. . .
    At a meeting of the Trustees held on September 5, 1891,
 the officers of the Club were authorized to accept the offer of the
 Long Island Improvement Co. to sell from 75 to 80 acres of land,
 on the Shinnecock Hills for the sum of $2500, the golf course having been already laid out on the land.
At a meeting of the Trustees held on September 7, 1891, the 
House Committee was authorized to proceed with the erection of the Club House in accordance with the plans submitted by
Stanford White.  The original course, as laid out by Willie Dunn in the summer
of 1891, consisted of 12 holes, the object of selecting that number 
instead of eighteen having been, as I remember, for the purpose
 of conserving our resources in the interest of improving both the 
fair green and the putting greens. Shortly thereafter, the links
 having become somewhat congested, an additional nine-hole 
course was constructed for the exclusive use of the women players. 
This distinction between men and women players having
 created a certain amount of dissatisfaction, the new nine-hole 
course was soon abandoned in favor of a single eighteen-hole
 course. Later on, still further changes were made when all the 
kind south of the railroad track was abandoned in favor of the
present links, situated exclusively north of the railroad.

Those familiar with the story about how Davis created the original course at Shinnecock have surely caught on.   Parrish recalled that club member Charles L. Atterbury traveled to Montreal on business and brought back “a Scotch Canadian Professional, Willie Dunn by name.”   Willie Dunn, the professional at Royal Montreal in 1891?   I don’t think so and have found no record of it. W.D. Davis was the professional at Royal Montreal in 1891.  It seems that the professional described by Parish was not Willie Dunn, but rather he the Scottish (not “Scotch Canadian”) professional at Royal Montreal named William D. Davis.  Did Parrish get his Scottish professionals confused, and credit the wrong Willie with introducing golf to Shinnecock?

It seems quite possible.  After all, both Dunn and Davis were reportedly there early on.  And surely many of us have been similarly confused when trying to keep track of these early Scottish professionals, many of whom shared the same first name, usually “Willie,” and had relatives in the industry.  (Consider just the Dunn family, with Old Willie, his twin Jamie, Tom, Young Willie, Seymour, and John.)  I know I have mixed up the various early Scottish professionals from time to time, so surely it is understandable if Parrish did, especially because his recollection was written over thirty years after the fact, when Mr. Parrish was in his seventies. 

But I find it odd that, throughout his reminiscence, Parrish provided many precise details, such as the exact dates and details from various 1891 meetings, as if he was relying on the club records, records that as Secretary he most likely would have created.  Yet he has the name wrong?  Is it possible that Shinnecock never recorded the name of the person who created their original golf course in their records?  Perhaps. given the original course was reportedly laid out in the summer of 1891 and the club was not incorporated until that September.  Also, if Dunn and Davis each were there early on, and if they each did something to the golf courses, then why does Parrish only mention one early professional?  Perhaps he just did not see fit to mention that there were others, or perhaps he had combined them in his mind into sort of a composite character with a Scottish brogue.  Or maybe either he or the club records (or both) did not concern themselves with such things as recording the names of the hired help at Shinnecock.   Regardless, Parrish seems to have been confused as to the name. And so it looks as if W.D. Davis must have designed he original course of twelve holes. 

So we seem to have come full circle, and we are back to Whitten’s version, with Davis designing the original twelve hole course, and then Dunn expanding it to eighteen a few years later. Yet what of Dunn’s description of designing the twelve hole course?  Was he embellishing?  Was he confused, and really describing the eighteen hole course?  Or is the mystery still not yet resolved?

As an aside, I hope you are starting to get a sense of just how confusing and ambiguous these histories can become, and how what would seem to be the most reliable sources might not be, especially when interests are reputations might be involved, or when the source is trying to make a coherent story out of facts that he or she may not quite know or remember. We all like a good narrative story, especially one that makes sense and makes us or ours look good. And those writing these narratives usually go into it with some idea of what they think happened and how the story should come out. Apparently, sometimes in the process putting the puzzle together, the facts get bent, confused, mixed up, and changed for the sake of creating a compelling and coherent narrative.  I don’t think this is done intentionally, but rather subconsciously, a product of our deep desire to make sense of things even though we might not have all the information.  First we figure out what makes sense to us in the big picture, and then we see the facts through that lens, unintentionally nudging them here and there so that it all fits in the end.   

As for what really happened at Shinnecock, if you want to know well then you should develop a relationship with the club and then go there and read their records.  Just kidding.  Before I get to what really happened, I want to point out the one consistency throughout these accounts and of many more not discussed.  All agree that whoever designed Shinnecock’s original course, it was a twelve hole course, and that twelve hole course was eventually replaced with a course of eighteen holes.  Dunn said so. So did Parrish, and Whitten agrees, and while I haven’t seen it presumably the club history noted the original course was twelve holes as well.  So at least we know that the original course must have been twelve holes, right? 

Below is what I generally think happened, based upon various contemporaneous newspaper articles including a terrific article from the August 30, 1891 New York Herald. As should be expected by now, even this begins with a bit of confusion.

- In the spring or summer of 1891, golf apparently became a hot topic of conversation around Southampton, but there are two different stories about how this came to be.  Mrs. Johnson, the keeper of the Shinnecock Inn, reportedly insisted that golf was brought to Southampton by her sister, who had traveled to Scotland to visit relatives and came back with eloquent descriptions of the game, and that she somehow convinced some of the founders, Charles Atterbury in particular, to bring the game to Southamption.  The other story is the one about Duncan Cryder and Edward Mead (the publisher) traveling to Biarritz and witnessing the game (reportedly as played by Willie Dunn) and falling for it instantly, then convincing others back home that they should try to bring the game to Southampton. While the latter story is the one that seems to have survived, it could be that both Mrs. Johnson’s sister and the Biarritz trip both played a part. 

- Despite the stories about Vanderbilt having been involved,  I have found no contemporaneous reports of his involvement.

- Anyway whatever his impetus, when Charles Atterbury traveled to Montreal for business that summer, he convinced Royal Montreal’s golf professional, W.D. Davis, to come down to Southampton to lay out a golf course and to and teach those interested how to play golf.   

- W.D. Davis came to Southampton in July 1891 and apparently stayed about a month. While in Southampton he gave lessons and laid out two golf courses. The men’s course was nine holes, with lengths of 258, 187, 395, 275, 412, 297, 265, 228, and 242 yards. Following is a map of the golf course from before mid-August 1891.

- At around the same time (before mid-August 1891) W.D. Davis also designed a shorter women’s course, reportedly located across the Railroad tracks from the future location of the clubhouse. The course was reportedly easier and about a mile in length total.  Presumably the course was also nine holes, although I have yet to confirm this presumption.  If it was nine holes, then this would mean that Shinnecock was the first club in the United States to have eighteen holes, although the two courses were apparently not played as a single round.

- On August 22, 1891, the organizers met to form the club, adopt the club’s Constitution, and elect the Trustees.  By mid-September, the club had reportedly purchased eighty acres of land on which the golf course had already been laid out.  Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was incorporated on September 22, 1894, and work began on the clubhouse soon thereafter, and the clubhouse was open by July of 1892.  (Mr. Parrish’s account provides many more details and is worth a read for those interested.)

- For the summer of 1892, Shinnecock reportedly hired a Scottish professional of their own, John Cuthbert of St. Andrews.  I don’t know much about Cuthbert, except that he appears to have become a professional shortly before coming to Southampton.  He played as an amateur in the 1891 Open, and apparently did not play in the Open again until 1894, when was no longer listed as an amateur.  I don’t know where Cuthbert was in 1894.  In fact, I had never heard of Cuthbert, even though was apparently one of the earliest Scottish professionals working in the United States.   Does anyone know anything about him? 

- It seems unlikely that Cuthbert made any major changes to the layout.  As of July of 1892, the yardages on the nine-hole long course were reportedly the same as laid out by Davis the year before. 

- Sometime in the spring of 1893 Willie Dunn came to Southhampton.  It was then that he must have created the twelve hole course. As one can see by comparing the map below to the 1891 map above, Willie Dunn’s course apparently kept holes approximating four of the previous holes.   Something like the original 1st hole remained Dunn’s first hole, something like the original 2nd hole became Dunn’s 5th hole, something like the original 6th hole became Dunn’s 9th, and something like the original 7th hole became Dunn’s 10th hole.  (Note that this 1893 map contains contour lines.)

- Additionally, Dunn apparently designed a new nine hole women’s course, as the previous Women’s course was reportedly located on the other side of the railroad tracks. 

The history continues on from there, with Dunn expanding the twelve hole course to eighteen holes in the spring of 1895, and at this time Shinnecock had both an 18 hole men’s course, and a 9 hole women’s course.  By summer of 1895 Dunn was reportedly so busy playing money matches and designing courses that Shinnecock sent for Andrew Kirkaldy to split Dunn's duties at Shinnecock.  Below is a map of the two Shinnecock courses in 1895.  And surely that is more than enough of the early history for now.

And what of the various versions of the history?   It seems that most of them were partially correct, but also seriously flawed. Club Secretary Samuel Parrish’s version apparently confused Dunn and Davis, or somehow combined them into one man.  Parrish also apparently forgot that there had been a nine-hole course for two seasons before the twelve hole course was laid out.  And if the newspaper account of the location of the women’s course is correct, then Parrish also forgot that there were at least two different women’s courses, including one laid out in 1891. Willie Dunn’s version of the history was apparently correct to the extent that Dunn recalled laying out the twelve-hole course, but Dunn neglected to mention that there was already a nine-hole course and a Women’s course already in existence.  Also he inexplicably included a Vanderbilt in the mix, and apparently has his years off by a few. I haven’t seen the Shinnecock Club history, but apparently it correctly credits Dunn with laying out twelve-hole course, but incorrectly portrays this as the original course.  Whitten correctly noted that Davis was the first to design a course at Shinnecock, but mistakenly thought it was the twelve hole course that was designed a few years later.    All these accounts pretty much treat the women’s course as an after thought, as does my version, to a degree.   

Is my version correct?   Who knows, but it is the best I could come up with based upon what I could find.

Here is a link to the Parrish work, which can be read online:;id=njp.32101013501083;size=75;page=root;seq=3

Here is the August 30, 1891 New York Herald Article, mentioned above. [EDITED TO CORRECT WRONG DATE]

JC Jones:

I find this write up to be very well researched, very informative and very intriguing.  Congratulations to you for putting this together.

JC Jones,

Thank you.  I appreciate it.


--- Quote from: TEPaul on December 21, 2010, 09:16:10 PM ---Geoff Childs, it was good to speak with you today. Your prediction was right on the money and your timing was incredibly accurate. I mean we're talking here timing in a matter of hours. You predicted Shinnecock and I predicted Oakmont. You're good, my friend, but I've always known that!

--- End quote ---


This isn't about you.  So please do not derail the thread with petty posts about how you and your lackeys try to keep tabs on me.



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