ROCHESTER, N.Y. – There is one person at Oak Hill Country Club who cannot afford to make a mistake on the final day of the PGA Championship.
In an empty room in the clubhouse at 1 p.m. Sunday, that person readies for the most important day of the year.
Meet Gail Hedgepeth, the engraver of the Wanamaker Trophy, given to the winner of the final major of the year.
"I need it about 10 degrees cooler in here," she tells her brother Gary, and he rushes out to fix the issue.
Hedgepeth, 51, is one of fewer than 200 master certified hand engravers of precious metals in the nation. She has worked in front of a U.S. president. She has had an M-16 pointed at her face. She has spent months obsessing about a fox's head. She has carved the name of 15 straight PGA Champions on arguably the most famous trophy in golf. And for the last five years, she's done it on the premises, meaning she has only a short time to carve a name and make it perfect. Last year, she completed Rory McIlroy's name in 12 minutes.
As the golfers head out to warm up, Hedgepeth is already etching "2013" onto a band made of sterling silver. She uses tools handed down to her from her master, who passed away in 1986 after engraving for Lyndon B. Johnson. Those same tools were handed down to him from an engraving pioneer. So Hedgepeth is engraving with instruments that are more than a century old.
When it looks like a winner is emerging, Hedgepeth will write a name in powder. This is magnesium powder, which is highly reactive and got her in trouble with security on a flight through Chicago. So much trouble, in fact, that agents splayed her up against a wall and pointed a rifle directly at her face. Hedgepeth tried to explain, but an agent barked, "Don't speak!" Her situation was made worse by the fact that her polishing compound looks conspicuously like C-4 explosives.
Believe it or not, this happened before 9/11. She's flown only twice since then.
The powder is also a touchy subject to those who might be superstitious. Because there has been at least one time when she wrote a golfer's name in powder and he went on to lose the PGA Championship. She won't say who the golfer was, and it's hard to blame her.
As soon as the winner is known, Hedgepeth will begin to engrave the first letter. "When he throws his hands in the air," she says, "I start cutting." No, she doesn't cheer for players with short names, though she confesses she was pleased when Ernie Els won. (Fortunately for her, Kiradech Aphibarnrat vanished from the leaderboard over the weekend.) Circumstances haven't always been perfect; three years ago at Whistling Straits, she found herself working in the kitchen area of the clubhouse.
When she's done, her brother, Gary, will rush the trophy to the staging area for the presentation. That, of course, is a pressure-packed job as well, but Gary is there to support his sister and make sure she doesn't spell "Bradley Keegan" instead of Keegan Bradley.
Hedgepeth, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., has never had a single complaint. Els thanked her for a job well done. And one PGA Champion – again unnamed – recently contacted her because he didn't like the engraving on a trophy from another tournament. She gave him a price and he told her he'd contact her after he got back from Western New York.
She says she's never nervous, in part because she's been doing this since she was 16. Her most tense moment came when she was 20; that was when Richard Nixon came to watch her engrave.
"Am I making you nervous?" he asked, peering over her shoulder.
"No, Mr. President!" she lied.
These days, nothing surprises her. A couple years ago, she got a call from a number in Reston, Va. That meant one thing: government. A male voice on the other end said he needed an engraving for his 41st wedding anniversary, and he needed it immediately. She said OK, and offered her address.
"Ms. Hedgepeth," the man interrupted. "We know where you live."
Not long after, a couple of black town cars pulled up in front of her house, with one license plate reading "SPYONE." A man appeared in her doorway and she apologetically informed him that he would have to watch Andy Griffith reruns while she worked. He did as he was told, and then dropped $500 in cash on her desk as he accepted the engraving and left. She never figured out who the man was.
Then there was the time Hedgepeth got a call from a woman in Pennsylvania who had a very odd and specific request: She was a seventh generation foxhunter with a $65,000 clock. She wanted a fox's head engraved on the pendulum. And she wanted the fox to appear as if its hair was blowing in the breeze as the pendulum swayed.
Hedgepeth spent months on the fox's head, even studying the making of "A Bug's Life" to see how to create a 3-D effect. She became obsessed with the project, mulling over the design at dinner and in the bath. She finally completed the work, making the fox's hair look windblown, and the client was thrilled.
Then, not long after, the client called again. She was crying. A maintenance worker had mistakenly drilled two holes in the pendulum.
Hedgepeth calmed the woman down and asked her to send the pendulum to her. She engraved grapes over the holes. Problem solved.
So if you think about the fox's head, the spy, the question from Nixon, and the rifle in her face, you can see why the Wanamaker Trophy doesn't make Gail Hedgepeth all that skittish.
And besides, golfers are pretty understanding. She once had a conversation with 2008 PGA Champion Padraig Harrington about his rather-long name. He felt bad that Hedgepeth had so little time to engrave so many letters. Next time, she suggested, maybe she would just engrave "Padraig H" for the ceremony and do the rest later. He grinned and said, "You have yourself a deal!"
Nice of him. But then again, what other choice does he have?
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