Match Play: PGA Golfers to NFL Players

Jordan Spieth Patriots Tom Brady

With the PGA Tour’s FedExCup Playoffs in full force, and the NFL’s regular season now underway, this might be the best combined time of year for golf and football. With golf typically being considered an individual sport (unless you ask Jordan Spieth), and football lauded an ultimate team game, player-to-player comparisons between the two are difficult to construct.

The different sports are built on different factors and they largely value different individual attributes. That all being said, we took a swing at forming some equivalencies:


This pair of ‘PM’s are among the finest players and most charming and charismatic personalities in the history of their sport. Both were extraordinarily accomplished in college, Mickelson at Arizona State and Manning at Tennessee, and both became media megastars on their way to the big leagues.

Both emphatically justified that pre-professional hype by racking up wins early in their careers, and doing it in style, but for a time, those early careers were also largely defined by a proclivity for falling just short on the big stage.

Mickelson famously began his career 0 for 42 in majors and had 17 top-10 major finishes before he finally triumphed as a 34-year-old at the 2004 Masters. Manning too, fell short in the public eye of early expectations, at least in regards to the postseason. While Manning was putting up unprecedented stats and winning award after award (he was named league MVP twice before winning a Super Bowl), he was often criticized for the disappointing playoff exits that his team, the Indianapolis Colts, could not quite shake.

Manning finally broke through with a Super Bowl title in 2006, his seventh year in the league. Both Mickelson and Manning would go on to continue their incredible play late into their careers, but while both would capture multiple titles (five majors for Mickelson, two Super Bowls for Manning), there is a sense that both could/should have won even more, and they both had a contemporary – Tiger Woods for Mickelson and Tom Brady for Manning – who was more accomplished. In that sense, Mickelson and Manning are both a consensus ‘second-best player’ of their time.

Also, many would surmise that neither Mickelson nor Manning have ever turned down an endorsement deal, with both starring in a nauseating number of commercials. While that is largely a credit to them being so incredibly popular and likeable, it also makes them easy targets of light-hearted mocking. Both are among the highest-earning athletes in history outside of their playing salaries, so that mocking mostly falls on deaf ears.


On the surface this looks like an awful comparison. As great as Spieth has been, he is just 24 and is expected to be a star for at least the next two decades, while at 40, Brady would appear to be in the twilight of his career, although the ageless quarterback could still be leading the Patriots at 50 for all we know (with the Patriots using nine consecutive franchise tags on backup Jimmy Garoppolo).

So how do they compare best? Put most succinctly, Spieth and Brady are born winners.

Neither has an athletic profile that tests off the charts, but both exhibit a cool confidence, a clutch gene, and a mastery of the mental game that rate them favorably among the greatest of all time, regardless of age.

Going into battle, whether it is the Super Bowl, the Ryder Cup, or something else, these are the two you most want leading your team.


While all of these comparisons are between talented players, perhaps nobody is extolled more for their immense physical talent than Dustin Johnson and Andrew Luck. Both hit the genetic jackpot and, combined with a tireless work ethic, have constructed an all-around skillset that has helped them excel in the elite levels of athletic competition.

Both Johnson and Luck have been very accomplished early in their careers. The 33-year-old Johnson is a 16-time winner on the PGA Tour, and has at least one victory in each of his ten full-time seasons. In college, Luck was a two-time All-American and two-time Heisman runner-up at Stanford.

As a professional quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Luck is a three-time Pro-Bowler in just five seasons, has taken the Colts to the playoffs three times, and has been re-writing the young QB record-books. Luck was especially stellar in 2014, when he led the NFL with 4761 passing yards and 43 total touchdowns (40 passing, 3 rushing). However, despite immense early success, both Johnson and Luck have had more than their share of big-stage disappointment.

Johnson was long criticized for being unable to finish the job in majors, until he finally broke through at the 2016 U.S. Open, his first and only major championship. Similarly, Luck has struggled with turnovers in the playoffs, throwing 12 INTs to just nine TDs in six playoff games, and has yet to carry his team further than the AFC Championship Game.

In 2015, the Colts were just 2-5 with Luck under center in a season where he missed significant time with shoulder and abdominal injuries. Luck was healthy in 2016, but despite a 31:13 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the Colts fell well below expectations and missed the playoffs.

Johnson is ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and Luck has statistically been one of the best active quarterbacks in the game, but fervent fans of their competitors often question whether the two are overrated.

Perhaps most similarly, both Johnson and Luck are the type of athlete who would prefer to let their play do their talking for them. It can be difficult to get a word out of either, with both carrying themselves in laconic, unemotional, and unassuming ways.

Neither seems especially uncomfortable in the spotlight, but they do not appear to seek attention either. It should be no surprise to hear that neither Johnson nor Luck has anything resembling a social media presence, despite being young men in a generation that lives for it.


There is no single comparison able to fully reflect the vicissitudes of the career of Tiger Woods. Therefore, I broke it down into three separate equivalencies: one for peak, transcendent Tiger, one for tamed, broken down Tiger, and one that mixes a bit of both. Comparison No. 1 is to legendary NFL running back Jim Brown.

At their heights, Tiger Woods and Jim Brown were the most dominant players in the history of their game, and arguably, nobody has done more to increase the popularity of their sport. A significant portion of golf fans today are zealots because of Tiger, just like many football fans inherited their implacable love of the game from parents and grandparents who fell head over heels for Jim Brown.

Tiger was untouchable in his early career. He completed the career Grand Slam at the age of 24, and reached 14 major victories within his first 12 years on Tour.

A number of those wins were unfathomable blowouts: Tiger won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, the 2000 Open Championship by eight strokes, and his 15-stroke massacre at Pebble Beach at the 2000 U.S. Open remains the gold standard for domination in sports where athletes compete as individuals. For his professional career, Tiger has 79 victories, 14 majors, and has been named PGA Tour Player of the Year a record 11 times.

Similarly, Jim Brown was a man among boys during his Hall of Fame tenure. In his nine years of playing professional football (he retired at 30, which may have been the smartest thing he ever did given the recent discoveries on the prevalence of CTE), Brown was named to the Pro Bowl nine times, was a First-Team All-Pro eight times, led the NFL in rushing eight times, and led the NFL in touchdowns five times.

By comparison, his three league MVPs look almost pedestrian until considering that no other running back in the history of the NFL has more than one. Brown’s average of 104.3 rushing yards per game is, by far, the best in NFL history, with nobody else averaging 100, and just four players averaging over 90 (Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Adrian Peterson, and Eric Dickerson).

What the stats cannot accurately express, however, is how feared both Tiger and Jim Brown were by their opponents. If that could be made into a statistic, they would both be landslide #1s.


While the first Tiger juxtaposition reflected the best of his career, this second one looks at both his highs and lows. Former NFL wide receiver Randy Moss cannot compare to Tiger in regards to his titles and hardware (although Marshall University would probably rescind my alumni status if I failed to point out that Moss led the Thundering Herd to the 1996 Division 1-AA Championship), but at their peaks, they were both miles ahead of their competition.

Like Tiger, Moss is possibly the most impressive physical specimen to do what he does, and also like Tiger, Moss wasted little time in his assimilation to the highest level of competition.

As a rookie for the Minnesota Vikings, Moss caught 69 passes for 1313 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those would be unbelievable numbers for a rookie in today’s NFL, but they are even more impressive when considering that rookie receivers in Moss’ day rarely posted starter numbers, let alone Pro Bowl ones.

Moss continued to produce at that sky-high level in his young career, and most notably, his 23 touchdown receptions as a member of the 2007 New England Patriots is still an NFL record.

However, Tiger and Moss also compare in some less positive ways, mostly in that they most caused immense problems for themselves with their off-field actions. With their physical gifts and the talent they flashed at their peak, there is a sense that both should have completely re-written the record books, and probably would have had they been able to stay out of their own way.

In the cases of both Tiger and Moss, there is one figure in the history of their respective sports – Jack Nicklaus for Tiger and Jerry Rice for Moss – that is more accomplished despite being significantly less athletically gifted.

Moss is now retired, and will therefore never come close to reaching Rice. Tiger, on the other hand, could still conceivably catch Nicklaus, but with his age (41) and recent troubling history with confidence and injuries, that feels less likely with each passing year.

On another note, one underrated way that Tiger and Moss compare positively is that they are both among the most eloquent athlete speakers in the world. On a list of best interviews in sports, both would rank near, if not at, the top.


This comparison obviously looks more at the Tiger of recent years. In any context, this probably feels like an incredible insult to Tiger or very generous to Griffin III, a free agent quarterback who was last released by a team that nearly Rod Marinelli-ed their way to the second 0-16 season in NFL History, but they too, have a good amount in common.

Like Tiger at Stanford, Griffin III (nicknamed RG3) was a standout college player at Baylor, winning the Heisman Trophy in 2011. A thrilling backyard playing style, an inimitable passion for the game, and a genial off-course demeanor made them both extremely popular amateurs.

Acquired with the No. 2 selection of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins, RG3 became a rookie sensation. In that rookie season, he accumulated an impressive 27 touchdowns (20 passing, 7 rushing) with only five interceptions, an unbelievably low number for a rookie quarterback (for comparison, Peyton Manning had 28 INTs in his rookie season) and was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.

Griffin III had little trouble adjusting to the speed of the NFL, and was a charismatic field general who had the looks of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Like Tiger, RG3 became ubiquitous quickly, as company after company (athletic and others), tenaciously fought for the privilege of signing him to a lucrative endorsement deal.

However, Tiger and RG3 both fell off their lofty perches in the sports universe fast and hard, exploding on contact like a teenager’s poorly conceived egg-drop apparatus. Like Tiger, Griffin III’s all-out aggressive play led to great accomplishments, but also left him vulnerable to injury.

A torn ACL in the 2012 playoffs was largely imputed to a rushed comeback from a more minor knee injury he suffered in week 14. In 2013, he looked nothing like his dynamic rookie form. He continued to struggle prodigiously on the field and as injury after injury piled up, he became even less effective. Suddenly, he was a highly paid liability.

After a concussion early in the 2015 season, Griffin III officially lost his starting job; relegated to the bench in favor of Kirk Cousins, a quarterback the Redskins selected in the fourth round of the very same draft where they took Griffin III in the first.

The Redskins released Griffin III after the season, and despite the form he had once shown, he was not highly sought after by other teams. He ended up signing a two-year deal with the NFL’s doormat, the Cleveland Browns.

While he did win the Browns’ starting QB job in training camp, a week 1 shoulder injury forced him onto injured reserve, and when he came back in week 14, he still looked like a shell of his former self. He was cut by the Browns in March of 2017, and still has not found further employment. Griffin III is seen as damaged goods, a phrase used by many to describe the current state of Tiger Woods.


Two athletes who are considered undersized, nobody gets more from what they have than Justin Thomas and Russell Wilson.

The precocious duo did not need long to reach the apex of their respective sports as the 24-year-old Thomas already has five PGA Tour victories, including the 2017 PGA Championship, while the 28-year-old Wilson, a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, has already led his team to the Super Bowl twice in just five seasons, winning in blowout fashion in 2013.

Wilson’s lack of size caused him to drop precipitously to the third round of the 2012 draft, but he has been a boon for a previously-maligned Seahawks franchise, breaking the NFL record for career wins for a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year player, and tying the record for a 5th year player.

Both Thomas and Wilson have a gunslinger mentality and aggressive style that leads many to question how they manage to avoid serious injury. Thomas uses every bit of his 5’10” 165lb frame to hit long, explosive lasers, and ranks in the top 10 on Tour in driving distance.

The 5’11” 215lb Wilson has one of the NFL’s strongest arms and does not shy away from contact, despite playing behind a consistently dreadful offensive line that concedes seemingly endless quarterback hits. It is fair to question how long the two will be able to hold up physically in their lines of work, but for now, they fight hard and recover well, a testament to elite conditioning.


These two Matts are Georgia icons: Kuchar as an all-time great collegiate golfer at Georgia Tech, and Matt Ryan (who was also a distinguished amateur) as the starting quarterback and undisputed leader of the Atlanta Falcons since 2008.

While both Kuchar and Ryan have been among the most consistently great players in their respective sports, the recent comparison goes deeper than top-10 finishes and playoff appearances.

Both have faced criticism for not yet winning on the biggest stage, but both saw their best chance slip by in 2017, Kuchar at the Open Championship and Ryan at the Super Bowl.

They both held late Sunday leads that were relinquished when their legendary competition, Jordan Spieth and the New England Patriots, put together historically incredible closing stretches to snatch victory, forcing Kuchar and Ryan to humbly accept runner-up honors.


Both Sergio and Elway were extraordinarly popular as young players, and while that made them very marketable, they both conducted their business with a perceived arrogance that rubbed many the wrong way.

The two made good on the promise they flashed early in their careers. They were both statistical monsters who won often, but both found difficulty finishing out front in title matches.

From 1999 to 2016, Sergio had 22 finishes of T10 or better in majors without a victory, including four runner-ups.

Nobody questioned his talent, but the criticism for failing to win it all was deafening. It started to look like it might never happen for Sergio.

Elway too, could not shake the critics. From 1983 to 1996, Elway led the Broncos to the Super Bowl three times: 1987, 1988, and 1990. The Broncos lost all three.

For both Sergio and Elway, the magic number ended up being 37. A 37-year-old Sergio finally broke through for a victory at the 2017 Masters, putting an end to the legacy-marring narrative.

A 37-year-old Elway was the starting quarterback of the Broncos 1997 Super Bowl Champion team, and came back to do it again one year later, leading Denver to a 34-19 Super Bowl victory over the Atlanta Falcons in his final NFL season.


Brooks Koepka and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton both flash that “Big Man on Campus” look that makes you question whether they accidently walked onto their sports from an audition for “lead jock” in a 1990s romantic comedy.

Regardless, their buff exteriors and cool demeanors work wonders for them. Both from the Southeast, the 27-year-old Koepka has played just four years on the PGA Tour, but has already earned nearly $13 million, and won a major earlier this year when he triumphed in a record-smashing shootout at the U.S. Open.

Newton, just 28 years old himself, has a Heisman trophy and a 2015 NFL MVP award to his name, and is on pace to become one of the greatest duel-threat quarterbacks ever.

While their muscular builds engender tremendous power in their games, they also exhibit a surprising amount of finesse.

Koepka hits the ball a mile, but is also one of the best putters on Tour. Newton is known for a big arm and punishing runs, but as recently as 2015, he completed a respectable 60% of his passes with a tremendous 35 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions.


Both the 28-year-old Rickie Fowler and Odell Beckham Jr, a 24-year-old wide receiver for the New York Giants, carry themselves with a bold swagger that makes them among the most popular athletes in professional sports.

In addition to being tremendous players who consistently rack up extraordinary statistics, the two are also kings of social media and paragons of style.

Fowler is still looking for major championship #1, which leads to his frequent, exhausting inclusion on lists of the best professional golfers without a major.

Beckham has yet to win a championship either, but with just three seasons under his belt, the pressure to win has not yet become especially overwhelming.

However, in those three seasons, the Giants were 6-10 twice (2014, 2015) and got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in the other (2016).

Reasonable fans do not impute Beckham for the struggles, but if the Giants do not see more success soon, questions could start to spread about whether he is the kind of player a team can win a championship with.


Spanish superstar Jon Rahm and Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant did not seem to need any development time; they were incredible from the moment we first saw them play.

The two were men among boys in the college ranks, with Rahm, an Arizona State product, being the only two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award, which is given each year to the best player in college golf. Rahm also holds the record for most weeks on top of the amateur rankings.

Bryant had an NFL body and skillset from the moment he stepped foot onto the campus of Oklahoma State University.

As a sophomore he put up video game numbers, with 87 receptions for 1480 yards and 19 touchdowns, and was on a similar pace in his junior year before being suspended after three games for a questionable NCAA violation.

Both have had unbelievable starts to their professional careers as well, taking very little time to establish themselves among the elites of their leagues.

Rahm and Bryant have identical listed measurements (6’2” 220lbs), but perhaps where they compare best is with their outspoken passion for their game, as both have met considerable criticism for a hot temper. A proclivity for excessive expressions of emotion are perhaps the only thing holding these two back from even greater things.


While Henrik Stenson is nowhere near the playboy icon and ostentatious personality that led New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath to earn the nickname “Broadway Joe”, both are well-known for the time they showed too much skin.

Namath for when he flaunted his legs in a famous commercial for Hanes Beautymist pantyhose, and Stenson for when he stripped down to his underwear to play a shot out of a muddy lie at the 2009 WGC-Cadillac Championship.

Both Stenson and Namath have a long list of accomplishments; Stenson has 20 career wins and won the FedEx Cup in 2013, while Namath had a Hall of Fame football career, but on the field/course, both are most associated (by far) with one shining moment.

For Stenson, it was his all-time great major round, the final round 63 that resulted in a landmark victory at the 2016 Open Championship. For Namath, it was a victory over the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III, a win he famously guaranteed beforehand.


47-year-old Jim Furyk and 38-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees are in the twilight of their careers, but stand out in their respective sports for how they have been able to produce at a high level at ages when most of their contemporaries have retired.

Furyk has 17 wins in his PGA Tour career, including one major, and since turning 40 he has a FedEx Cup Championship and a PGA Tour Player of the Year award.

As recently as 2014, he has a season with 11 top 10s and nearly $6 million in earnings, and his 2016 season was highlighted by a runner-up finish at the U.S. Open and a 58 in the final round of the Travelers Championship, the single lowest score of the over one million rounds that have been played in the history of the PGA Tour.

Brees has too, continued to enjoy success in recent years. The 2009 Super Bowl MVP is one of the very few players still in the NFL who was born in the 1970s, but he has shown few signs of slowing down, and is coming off a season with 5208 passing yards and 37 touchdowns.

Brees has thrown more than 30 touchdowns in each of the past nine seasons, with a high of 46. Based on passer rating, Brees is the NFL’s all-time most accurate passer.


Physically, the 5’10” 160lb Patrick Cantlay reminds fans very little of Jadeveon Clowney, the ultra-athletic 6’5” 270lb outside linebacker for the Houston Texans.

Their careers, however, have shown some striking similarities. Both Cantlay and Clowney were otherworldly and highly-coveted amateur athletes who are known best for one especially great moment before turning professional.

For Cantlay, it was the second round 60 he shot as a 19-year-old amateur at the 2011 Travelers Championship. For Clowney, who spent his collegiate career at South Carolina, it was the viral hit he put on a University of Michigan running back during a sophomore victory at the 2012 Outback Bowl, maybe the most devastating hit seen in college football since the days of Jack Tatum.

Cantlay and Clowney were regarded as “can’t miss” professional prospects, but an inability to shake the injury bug resulted in very slow starts to their professional careers.

Fortunately, both have gotten back on track in their most recent season. Cantlay barely played from 2012-16, but in 2017, he has made the cut in all 11 events he has entered and has impressed with finishes of solo-second at the Valspar Championship and T3 at the RBC Heritage.

Clowney suited up for only four games in his 2014 rookie year, and dealt with further injuries in a 2015 season where he recorded just 4.5 sacks, but broke out prodigiously in 2016, becoming an extremely disruptive defensive presence in the absence of Texans’ superstar J.J. Watt. Clowney was named to the Pro Bowl in that season.


Longevity has been a defining characteristic of both Steve Stricker and Minnesota Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, who have defied age and have maintained first-class form late into their careers.

The 50-year-old Stricker now has Champions Tour eligibility, but has remained a consistent threat in PGA action. He had eight victories in a four-year stretch from 2009-2012 at an age (42-46) that most golfers are considered well past their primes.

Stricker has a runner-up finish and a top-five major finish as recent as 2016, and in 2017, he has made the cut in 11 of 13 events with a high finish of T5 in July’s John Deere Classic.

Also in 2017, he is an impressive 25th on Tour in scoring average and is the Tour leader in driving accuracy, while maintaining an average driving distance of over 280 yards. Newman, the fifth pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 2003 draft, continues to excel as a 38-year-old, despite playing a position where most hit the wall around age 30.

Playing as well as he does at his age is unheard of for a corner in today’s NFL.


Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas and Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake have two of the coolest names in their respective sports, but what really connects them is a shared love of the Great Blue North.

The 32-year-old Vegas has three wins in his PGA Tour career, with two of those coming in back-to-back years at the past two RBC Canadian Opens.

Those performances in Canada have made his career, allowing him to keep full status on Tour in addition to opening exemptions into a large number of elite, lucrative tournaments.

Wake too, took enormous advantage of his opportunities in Canada. The 35-year-old had a decent college career as a linebacker at Penn State, but was unable to catch the attention of NFL scouts and did not hear his name called in any of the seven rounds of the 2005 NFL Draft.

Wake signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent, but did not even make it to training camp before getting released. He lived at his parents’ home in Maryland until he got a tryout with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League, who offered him a contract worth $48,000 for one season.

Playing in Vancouver suited Wake well, as he was unbelievable in a two-year CFL stint, racking up 16 sacks as a rookie and adding 23 the following season, while being named the CFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in both.

His immense success in Canada put him back on the NFL’s radar, as over a dozen teams fought for his attention. He ended up signing with the Miami Dolphins and has been one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers over the last decade.

Vegas and Wake may have had much different upbringings, but when they hear “Oh Canada” they will both proudly stand and fondly reminisce.


Some call it moxie, some just call it self-confidence, and some even call it brash arrogance, but whatever ‘it’ is, the consensus is that both Bryson DeChambeau and Los Angeles Chargers star quarterback Philip Rivers have it.

Regardless of one’s thoughts on how these two stars carry themselves, what cannot be argued is that they have found great success with unconventional methods.

DeChambeau, just 23 years old, employs an unusual setup and uses clubs that are all the same length, but he has made it work for him, most notably when he won the recent John Deere Classic.

Rivers meanwhile, puts up historically tremendous statistics despite an unorthodox side-arm delivery that was widely questioned in the lead-up to the 2004 NFL Draft.

Now a six-time Pro-Bowler with over 45,000 passing yards, more than 300 touchdowns, and a career rating of 94.7, those questions have been thoroughly answered.


It is very unlikely that either Hideki Matsuyama or Larry Fitzgerald ever need to pay for a drink in Phoenix, Arizona, as both are greatly revered in the Valley of the Sun; Matsuyama as the two-time champion of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, arguably the best fan experience in golf, and Fitzgerald as the face of the Arizona Cardinals since 2003.

However, it is not just geography that links the 25-year-old Japanese golf star and the future Hall of Fame wide receiver, with both possessing a legendary work ethic that has been the driving force behind their wild success. They both subscribe to the adage “practice makes perfect”, and are well known for putting in work long after their competitors/teammates have hit the showers.

Matsuyama and Fitzgerald are also two of the most soft-spoken athletes in their respective sport. To be fair, at least some of Matsuyama’s taciturn demeanor is because he does not speak English, but even when he does get a chance to speak, he does not say much.

In August, Matsuyama even made headlines for announcing that he had been married since January and was a new father, something that caught the media by surprise. Matsuyama said he did not mention it before because “nobody asked.”

Both are nearly unstoppable when they get on a run. Matsuyama went through a stretch of play in late 2016 and early 2017 where he won four of five tournaments worldwide, and finished runner-up in the other, while Fitzgerald went on one of the greatest postseason runs ever in 2008, catching 30 passes for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns, which all passed records previously held by Jerry Rice.


Both Rory McIlroy and Rob Gronkowski are undeniably among the most physically imposing players in their game, and for both, their best is miles ahead of the best of their competition.

They are arguably both the most unstoppable athletes in their sport when they are “feeling it”.

However, while the two athletic freaks of nature have enjoyed tremendous success, Rory as a four-time major champion and Gronkowski as a two-time Super Bowl winner, injuries have held the duo back from reaching even greater heights.

McIlroy and Gronkowski are also among the most engaging and popular players in their sport. They both are frequently seen soaking up the spotlight, and have done as good a job as anyone in the sports world not named LeBron James at maximizing the value of their brand.


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