A letter from Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons on the origins of this story and how it came to be published can be read here. A guest editorial from Christina Kahrl detailing the problems with this piece as they relate to transgender issues can be found here.
Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.
It was well past midnight sometime last spring and I was still awake despite my best efforts. I hadn’t asked for those few extra hours of bleary consciousness, but I did try to do something useful with them.
I play golf. Sometimes poorly, sometimes less so. Like all golfers, I spend far too much time thinking of ways to play less poorly more often. That was the silver lining to my sleeplessness — it gave me more time to scour YouTube for tips on how to play better. And it was then, during one of those restless nights, that I first encountered Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, known to friends as Dr. V.
She didn’t appear in the video. As I would later discover, it’s almost impossible to find a picture, let alone a moving image, of Dr. V on the Internet. Instead, I watched a clip of two men discussing the radical new idea she had brought to golf. Gary McCord did most of the talking. A tournament announcer for CBS with the mustache of a cartoon villain, McCord is one of the few golf figures recognizable to casual sports fans because he’s one of the few people who ever says anything interesting about the sport.
The video was shot in March of last year, when McCord was in California for an event on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit on which he occasionally plays. In it, he explained that he had helped Dr. V get access to the nearby putting green, where he said she was currently counseling a few players. She was an aeronautical physicist from MIT, he continued, and the woman who had “built that Yar putter with zero MOI.” The credentials were impressive, but the name “Yar” and the acronym were unfamiliar.
According to McCord, before building her putter Dr. V had gone back and reviewed all the patents associated with golf, eventually zeroing in on one filed in 1966 by Karsten Solheim. As the creator of Ping clubs, Solheim is the closest thing the game has to a lovable grandfather figure. He was an engineer at General Electric before becoming one of the world’s most famous club designers, and his greatest gift to the sport was his idea to shift the weight in a club’s face from the middle to its two poles. This innovation may sound simple, but at the time it was revolutionary enough to make Solheim one of the richest men in America and the inventor of one of the most copied club designs in history. In Dr. V’s estimation, however, Solheim was nothing but a hack. “The whole industry followed [that patent],” she told McCord. “You’re using pseudoscience from the ’50s in golf!”
As the video went on, McCord told the story of how he had arranged a meeting between Dr. V and an executive at TaylorMade, the most successful clubmaker in the world, whose products McCord also happened to endorse. The gist of that meeting: This previously unknown woman had marched up to one of the most powerful men in golf and told him that everything his company did was wrong. “She just hammered them on their designs,” McCord said. “Hammered them.”
I was only half-awake when I watched the clip, but even with a foggy brain I could grasp its significance. McCord is one of golf’s most candid talkers — his method of spiking the truth with a dash of humor famously cost him the chance to continue covering the Masters after the schoolmarms who run the tournament objected to his description of one green as so fast that it looked like it had been “bikini-waxed.” This respected figure was saying that this mysterious physicist had a valuable new idea. But the substance of that idea wasn’t yet clear — over time, I would come to find out that nothing about Dr. V was, and that discovery would eventually end in tragedy. That night, however, all I knew was that I wanted to know more.
No athletes rely on their equipment quite like golfers. Picking which sneakers to wear or what bat to swing are relatively simple choices compared with selecting 14 clubs. Variables like grip material, shaft strength, and club length further complicate the process, and that’s without even considering which ball to use. The market for selling this equipment is enormously competitive, and it reflects a reality that goes against the current perception of the game.
Since Tiger Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996, broadcast golf has enjoyed a decade-and-a-half-long financial boom. That same year only nine players earned more than $1 million. By 2012, that number had ballooned to 100. But even as the money in televised golf has grown, participation has shrunk. The sport loses about 1 million players per year. That dwindling pool of paying customers has made the competition to sell them equipment ever more fierce.
Barney Adams, the founder of Adams Golf, the last truly successful independent club manufacturer, is unapologetically pessimistic about other small companies’ odds of survival. “We got lucky,” he says. “Our success was tied to one club.” Adams had been a custom club fitter constantly on the brink of bankruptcy until he built a club called Tight Lies. Adams’s creation was billed as a fairway wood, but many consider it to be the first hybrid, a half-iron half-wood that combined the best features of both. Adams exploited his finder’s advantage for as long as he could, but today every clubmaker has its own line of hybrids. In 2012, Adams Golf was sold to Adidas, which already owns TaylorMade.
Adams’s assessment of golf’s demographics and his conclusions about what they mean for the business are brutal. “Look at the average age of today’s golfer,” he says. “Half are over 40. How does that forecast into the future? If you look out 50 years, golf becomes squash.” The outlook is more grim, says Adams, for designers who make only putters. “In the history of the golf industry there’s never been an independent putter company that hasn’t gone broke,” he says. The only path to success involves being bought by a larger company. And to do that, Adams says, you need a story to sell. A story that can usually be reduced to five simple words: “Mad scientist invents great product.”
I wanted to know more about Dr. V, so I sent her an email and received one in return that confused the hell out of me. It was early April, and I was trying to set up an appointment to speak with her on the phone. First, however, she insisted that our discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist. The reason for this stipulation seemed dire.
“I have no issues as long as the following protocols are followed because of my association with classified documents,” she wrote. “Allow me to elucidate; I have the benefits under the freedom of information act the same privileges as federal judges, my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood, since I do numerous active projects … If the aforementioned is agreeable to you, please respond to this communique at your convenience so we can schedule our lively nuncupative off the record collogue.”
The words caught my eye first. Communique! Nuncupative! Collogue! I hadn’t heard of any of them, and it wasn’t until I looked up their definitions that I understood what she was saying. Everything about her email suggested she might be a tough interview. So, instead of trying to get a straight answer out of Dr. V, I reached out to McCord. He’s the one who first told me how she came to build her putter.
Yar Golf — Dr. V’s company — had begun seven years ago, he said, at an Arizona country club where she was attending the wedding of a colleague’s daughter. In the ladies’ locker room she met Gerri Jordan, a retired Bank of America senior analyst, who had just come from the course. Jordan was slamming her putter against a locker when Dr. V walked over and asked how she could help. Jordan asked her what she knew about putting, and Dr. V answered honestly — nothing. What she did know, however, was physics. She told Jordan that if the goal was to roll the ball smoothly, then the tool she was using was wrong for the job. This encounter is what eventually led to the creation of Yar, whose name comes from a nautical term that roughly translates to “easy to maneuver.” McCord’s cameo in the story was still a few years in the making.
By the time he met Dr. V she had already built her putter. She called it the Oracle GX1 — “G” for Gerri, as in Jordan; “X” for NASA Hyper-X, the hypersonic flight research program. It looked different from any other putter on the market. It had a small face and a large circular cutout in the back, giving it the appearance of a steel-shafted cup holder. It was also built using a principle that ran contrary to what had come to be golf’s conventional wisdom when it came to putters.
McCord explained that MOI, the acronym that had baffled me a month earlier, was Dr. V’s primary focus. It stood for “moment of inertia,” a concept that was by scientific standards fairly easy to understand. McCord explained that moments of inertia are a body’s resistance to changes in its rotation. “The higher the MOI,” he said, “the more the body has to resist.” Golf manufacturers were making putters with higher and higher levels of MOI, and advertising that fact as a benefit — it was supposed to make the club more forgiving, so that if a player didn’t hit the ball right on the sweet spot the stroke would still be pure. But McCord said Dr. V thought the whole idea was crazy. “What she said to me was that what we’ve been doing with putters is not science,” he said. “We’re going the wrong way. Zero MOI, that’s where golf should be going.” And that’s precisely what Dr. V said she had achieved with the Oracle.
But it wasn’t just the science behind Dr. V’s putter that intrigued McCord. It was the scientist, too. For starters, she was a woman in the male-dominated golf industry. She also cut a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair. What’s more, she was a Vanderbilt, some link in the long line descending from Cornelius, the original Commodore. All of this would have been more than enough to capture McCord’s attention, but what he found most remarkable about Dr. V was where she had been before she started making putters. She told him she had spent most of her career as a private contractor for the Department of Defense, working on projects so secretive — including the stealth bomber — that her name wasn’t listed on government records. “Isn’t that about as clandestine as you can get?” McCord asked me.
He had his own peculiar way of verifying this information. McCord said he was on friendly terms with a few retired four-star generals. He told me that they not only knew of Dr. V, but also that one had even called her “one of us.” Dan Quayle was also an acquaintance. Unable to help himself, McCord once put the former vice-president on the phone with Dr. V and watched as they chatted about old Pentagon projects. McCord clearly enjoyed showing off his discovery, this exotic new addition to the world of golf. But he wouldn’t have stuck his neck out for Dr. V, whom he just called “Doc,” if he didn’t also believe in her product. Yar hadn’t made McCord a paid sponsor, but it didn’t matter — the Oracle was so good that he used it anyway. “It’s the only one I’ll have in my bag now,” he told me. It was why he had set up the meeting between Dr. V and the company whose products he was paid to endorse, TaylorMade. “I just wanted to make sure they saw her first,” he said.
McCord also had an explanation for Dr. V’s strange vocabulary: This was just how scientists talked. He told me not to take it personally and not to be intimidated. Dr. V made fun of him and the “primitive information base” in golf all the time, he said. It was all in good fun! He even offered to arrange a phone call between us. “She will talk to you about the science and not the scientist,” he said after confirming with her that it was OK. Then he left me with a lighthearted warning: “Call Doc and hang on.”
Golf may be unlike other sports in the way its athletes rely on equipment, but it is very much like every other sport when it comes to the best way to sell that equipment: Put it in the hands of the pros. This is especially true for club designers who make putters. For them, the line between obscurity and fame is so thin a single weekend of golf can make it disappear.
By the time Karsten Solheim died in 2000, he was widely considered a genius. But before Julius Boros won the 1967 Phoenix Open with Ping’s Anser putter, Solheim was still working his day job at GE. Bobby Grace was an independent manufacturer with middling success until Nick Price won the 1994 PGA Championship with one of Grace’s mallet putters. In the eight weeks after Price’s win, Grace took orders for $6 million worth of clubs. It’s a similar story for Scotty Cameron, the biggest name in putters. Cameron and his wife had barely founded their golf company before Bernhard Langer won the 1993 Masters with one of Cameron’s blades. After Langer’s win, Cameron struck it rich.
Anyone who plays sports understands this phenomenon. We want to use the same clubs, shoes, balls, bats, and everything else as the pros because they’re the best, and we want to give ourselves every chance to play as well as them. It’s as much about confidence as it is quality equipment.
This isn’t just common sense — social scientists have actually studied how using “professional” gear affects amateurs’ performance. In 2011, researchers at the University of Virginia laid out a putting mat, a ball, and a putter, and invited 41 undergraduates to take part in an experiment. The students were asked to do two things: Take 10 test putts and then try to draw the hole to scale. Half were told nothing about the putter’s origins. The rest were told it once belonged to a PGA Tour player. You already know what happened next. The students who thought they were using a pro’s club sank more putts and drew the hole larger than the control group. The social scientists running the experiment must have known that what they were witnessing was pure superstition. How else to describe the process by which years of practice and skill can be transmitted from an expert to an amateur through the simple transfer of an object? But because they’re academics, they use a different term — positive contagion. It’s like the placebo effect for sports.
On May 4, 2012, McCord bestowed the blessing of positive contagion on Dr. V’s Oracle putter. While calling the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship, he singled out the club being used by golfer Aaron Baddeley. “Now, this is one of the greatest putters in the world,” he said. McCord then gave a quick sketch of Yar’s origins — Dr. V, rocket science, zero MOI. Even though Baddeley unhelpfully missed his putt, McCord was acting as Yar’s most vocal unpaid booster. He raved about the putter so much that his fellow announcers teased that he was filming an infomercial.
McCord never mentioned the name of the company that made the putter. And Baddeley, statistically one of the tour’s best putters, didn’t even play very well — he finished the tournament one over par, tied for 65th place. But none of that mattered to the golf fans who had listened to McCord’s plug. All they heard was one of the sport’s most trusted voices enthusiastically recommending a club being used by one of the world’s most skilled putters. The word was out. Within an hour, Dr. V told McCord, Yar’s website crashed after some 90,000 people rushed to see what all the fuss was about.
By the time I actually spoke with Dr. V, she had managed to add a few more quirks to her character. She had begun our correspondence by signing off emails with “Ciao.” Then she moved on to “Cheerio and Toodle Pip.” I didn’t know what to expect when she answered the phone in her Arizona lab. She told me she would “notify the switchboard personnel” to direct the call to her office, as if she were living in some bygone era. But when I finally called, the person on the other end of the line seemed normal. She asked about my dog, which was barking in the background. She complained about the lack of scientific expertise in club design — “There are no physicists in golf that I know of” — and she made things I knew to be hard sound simple. “A golf club is just a source of kinetic energy,” she said. “It just has to transfer it to a ball. It really is that easy.” All the big words she had used in her emails were replaced with smaller ones. She may have written like a mad scientist, but she spoke like someone who wanted to be understood. She also added a few new layers to her story.
Though she had insisted that she would only talk if the focus was on her putter and not herself, Dr. V willingly volunteered some background information. She had been born in Pennsylvania and later moved to Georgia. She had lived in Boston while attending MIT, and she had also spent more than a decade in Washington, D.C., while working on top-secret projects. All that moving around had resulted in what she called a “mutated accent.” The pitch of her voice was strange, too — deeper than expected. She said it was the result of a collapsed larynx she had suffered in a car crash. She also revealed why she avoided the golf course, preferring the life of a “lab rat.” The woman who had invented the newest, greatest putter not only didn’t play golf very often, she also was practically allergic to the sun. If she spent more than a few hours outside, she said, she got crippling migraines.
Dr. V’s time in Washington also helped explain the inspiration behind her putter’s strange look. She said she had been a regular volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, she discovered that golf had been used as therapy for some injured veterans. So to help those veterans on the course, the Oracle was designed to allow its user to retrieve the ball from the hole without bending down. That meant the resemblance to a cup holder wasn’t a tacky design choice but a triumph of ergonomics.
Dr. V also shared details of the chilly reception Yar had received from the rest of the golf industry. In six months there had been nine attempted break-ins at Yar’s office in Tempe, she said. Dr. V didn’t know who the burglars were, but she presumed someone was trying to steal her secrets. “A company would rather destroy Yar than buy us.” She had also seen firsthand how other golf companies reacted when tour pros they paid to use their clubs used Yar’s instead. Baddeley had used the Oracle for a few weeks, she said, and in that time had risen in the rankings of the PGA Tour’s best putters. But then, suddenly and without explanation, he stopped using it. Dr. V believed a competitor had convinced Baddeley to go back to one of its putters. McCord was less conspiratorial. He told me that Baddeley had complained that he couldn’t use the Oracle on certain greens. “Now, if that’s the real reason,” said McCord, his voice trailing off. “When you start talking golfers and you start talking contracts with club companies, I don’t know.”
The story of Dr. V and her putter was getting stranger by the second. An aeronautical physicist with a sun allergy builds the world’s greatest putter by rejecting conventional wisdom, then watches as deep-pocketed competitors try to steal her secrets and shut her out of the market. Just the explanation for the hole in the putter itself was outlandish. Dr. V had somehow found a way to turn an injury aid into a superior product. The strangest fact of all: The putter worked! Why else would Baddeley or McCord use it if they weren’t being paid? Clearly, there was only one thing left for me to do.
A few weeks after my first talk with Dr. V, I received a package. Inside was an Oracle putter with my name engraved on the back of its face. Dr. V had spent an hour on the phone getting my specifications — the length of my fingers, the distance between my wrist and the ground, which of my eyes was dominant. She then spent another half-hour talking me through drills to show me how to use the club. The concept of zero MOI had remained abstract until the moment I first swung the Oracle. While other putters twisted when you pulled them back, Dr. V’s didn’t — a reflection, perhaps, of the stability needed to design wings for the stealth bomber, which she often said was her inspiration when building the putter. It seemed as if all I had to do was hold the club, pick a line, and hit the ball, then watch it roll smoothly in that direction. The club didn’t fight me.
I then went to a public course to try the Oracle on some actual greens. I didn’t make every putt — far from it. But I did seem to sink more than usual. And like McCord, the more I used the putter the more I became its unofficial pitchman. I began to look forward to the “oohs” and “ahhs” from strangers when they would first see me use the club to pick the ball out of the hole. I enjoyed telling the wild story behind the putter’s invention. It turned a normal round of golf into an act of seduction. And it was all because Dr. V’s club had me putting with a lot more confidence.
I was ready to proclaim her an unknown genius with an idea that could revolutionize golf. All that was left to do was make sure the stories about engineering accolades and top-secret defense projects were legit. It was, I thought, just a formality.
I started with Dr. V’s biggest accomplishment — her work on the stealth bomber. The Department of Defense could not confirm her employment without a Social Security number, and I figured that Dr. V wouldn’t want to share hers. So I contacted Aviation Week senior international defense editor Bill Sweetman, who had written a book on the plane. Sweetman said there was no way to confirm Dr. V’s work without forcing her into a compromising position, since stealth workers signed lifetime nondisclosure agreements. “It would not be surprising if she worked on the B-2,” he wrote in an email, “and that she would not want to talk about it if she did.”
He was certainly right about that. I emailed Dr. V to tell her how much I loved her putter. I also told her that an equation-heavy document she had sent me called “The Inertia Matrix,” which further explained how to use the Oracle, had looked too confusing for me to follow. Finally, I asked if she could help me confirm a few facts about her past life. When I heard back, the patient woman I had spoken to on the phone had been replaced by an angry, mocking scientist. She wrote:
The email was a surprise. Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable. Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she’d founded. But why?
It didn’t take long to uncover some serious discrepancies in her story. I contacted the registrar’s office at MIT. It had no record of anyone named Essay Anne Vanderbilt attending. The registrar at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the same thing. Whatever Dr. V’s actual credentials, they didn’t include a business degree from Wharton, where she had supposedly gotten her MBA. This was significant but inconclusive. After all, Dr. V could have attended the schools under a different name. But why wouldn’t she have mentioned that?
The deeper I looked, the stranger things got. It seemed as if there was no record of Dr. V’s existence prior to the early 2000s. And what little I managed to find didn’t exactly align with the image she projected of a world-class scientist. I couldn’t find any record of her ever living in Boston. The same went for Washington, D.C. And when I contacted Walter Reed, I was told the hospital had no way to prove she had ever worked there.
I also found a lawsuit filed against the town of Gilbert, Arizona, in July 2007. The plaintiff’s name: Essay Vanderbilt, who had accused the town and three of its employees of sexual discrimination. The suit alleged that the previous year Vanderbilt was working as a “vehicle service writer” in Gilbert’s Fleet Management Division. In other words, at the same time that Dr. V claimed to have been working on top-secret government projects in D.C., she was actually coordinating car repairs for a Phoenix suburb. Vanderbilt didn’t win her case. And in 2011, a civil court in Maricopa County, Arizona, ordered her to pay nearly $800,000 to a commercial developer. That judgment may have been the reason why, later that year, Vanderbilt filed for bankruptcy, listing assets of less than $50,000 and liabilities of more than $1 million.
At this point I was still hoping everything I’d found was all a big misunderstanding. I wanted to believe Dr. V’s story. After all, the putter worked. People who knew a lot more than me about golf swore by the club. There were even logical explanations for much of what I had uncovered: Dr. V could have gone to school under a different name; she could have mixed up the dates while telling the story of when she founded Yar; she could have taken the job in Gilbert as an extra source of income to pay her bills; and she may have filed for bankruptcy simply because the golf club business can be cutthroat, and Yar had struggled financially before catching a hot streak in the past year.
I was still clinging to these threads when Leland Frische came along and snipped them all.
Frische is the risk manager for Gilbert, and he had been there when Vanderbilt first came to work for the town. He said she was hired in April 2006 and there were problems almost immediately. Vanderbilt had applied to be the manager of the fleet services division, but she lost out on that job to someone else. She believed she was more qualified, however, and others complained that she did not try to hide that. “She would confront her boss in open meetings,” Frische told me. “She would talk down to people. She really didn’t give us many options.” The town eventually fired Vanderbilt. Not long after, she filed her lawsuit. And that’s when something weird happened, Frische told me.
The town’s lawyers began investigating her background. Like me, they found some big holes, namely an education history she claimed to have but didn’t. The town’s lawyers also suspected that at one point she might have been known by a different name, and they asked her to reveal it. When she refused, the judge asked her to sign an affidavit saying she had always gone by Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She refused that request, too, and with it forfeited the right to continue her lawsuit. Frische said Gilbert’s search had ended there. But while we spoke on the phone, he started saying things that sounded odd to me. “Have you ever seen her in person?” he asked. “What I really hope for you is that you could meet her someday,” he said at another point in the conversation, from what seemed out of nowhere.
He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.
“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”
It took a moment for him to respond.
“I cannot confirm or deny anything on that,” he said, sounding once again like a risk manager. “But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?”
Here is what I now know about Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, inventor of the Oracle GX1 putter.
She was born a boy on July 12, 1953, in Philadelphia. She was given the name Stephen Krol, a person who has not received degrees from MIT or the University of Pennsylvania. She has been married at least twice, and the brother of one of Krol’s ex-wives says Dr. V has two children, possibly more. She was once a mechanic at a Sunoco station that she also may have run in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She filed and subsequently dropped a lawsuit against Sunoco. She moved to Arizona at some point after marrying her second wife in 1997. She ended up in Bonney Lake, Washington, a short time later. She filed a “petition for change of name” on October 14, 2003, in the Pierce County, Washington, District Court. She scratched out an unsuccessful first attempt at writing “Essay” on that petition. She wrote “OLD NAME DOES NOT MATCH ME” where the court paperwork asked why she no longer wanted to be known as Stephen Krol. She worked as general manager at Trax Bar and Grill, an LGBT bar in Kent, Washington. She was the subject of three separate harassment claims from her time there, including one from a male coworker who said she made “inappropriate comments about her breasts and genitalia.” She moved to Arizona again sometime later. She met Gerri Jordan. She built a putter. She met Gary McCord. She told me the focus should be on the science and not the scientist.
What little else I know about Stephen Krol in the years before and after he changed his name comes from people who knew him, but didn’t know him well. My attempts to get in touch with members of his family and his ex-wives were unsuccessful. Some people didn’t pick up or return my calls. Others, like Ewa Kroll, whose name showed up alongside his in searches and whose relationship to Stephen I still haven’t been able to parse, hustled me off the phone as quickly as possible. “I have not talked to him for years,” she said. “I’m just going to have to say ‘good-bye’ now.”
The darkest discovery was something that occurred after Krol had decided to live as Dr. V. In 2008, she tried to kill herself with an overdose of prescription drugs and carbon monoxide poisoning from closing herself in a garage with her car running. A police report offered some explanations for why she might have tried to take her own life — Yar’s business was slow and Dr. V’s romantic relationship was on the ropes. She had recently fought with her girlfriend, Gerri Jordan, president of Yar Golf. Jordan told police that she and Dr. V were in a monogamous relationship and that they had gotten into an argument two days before. She had found Dr. V in the passenger seat of her car after the suicide attempt and tried to keep her awake. Jordan had also presumably been the first person to read the suicide note Dr. V had taped to the window of the car door, which read in part, “Tell Gorgeous Gerri that I love her.”
What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?
She had faked the credentials that made the science behind her club seem legitimate. But the more I talked to people in the world of club design, the more I came to understand that many believed the physics behind the Oracle putter were solid, even if the “scientist” was not. I found Kelvin Miyahira, a golf instructor in Hawaii with no ties to Yar who nonetheless had become one of its biggest fans. Miyahira had used a high-speed camera to compare the Oracle with other, more popular putters. In slow-motion videos he posted to YouTube, he showed that when he used the Oracle, it was more stable and rolled the ball more smoothly and with less sidespin than any of the other clubs he tried.
Champions Tour player David Frost had once received an hour-long putting lesson from Dr. V and four days later had won a tournament by tying the lowest score ever recorded on that course. The information Dr. V had imparted to him was so valuable, Frost told me, that he wasn’t even willing to share it. Maybe if I’d had the same access, the Oracle would have remained as effective for me. But positive contagion, at least in my case, only seemed to work when I believed I was still infected. When I was under the impression that Dr. V was a brilliant engineer, my putting improved dramatically. As soon as I learned she had simply been a struggling mechanic, the magic was lost. Today, Dr. V’s Oracle is collecting dust in my garage.
The other question to consider was if any of the lies actually mattered. Yes, Dr. V had fabricated a résumé that helped sell the Oracle putter under false pretenses. But she was far from the first clubmaker to attach questionable scientific value to a piece of equipment just to make it more marketable. Sure, her lies were more audacious than the embellishments found in late-night infomercials. But her ultimate intent — to make a few bucks, or, maybe, to be known as a genius — remained the same. Whatever the answers, Gary McCord would not be able to help me find them. The man who had once been so willing to talk stopped responding to my emails. Finally, a spokesperson at CBS told me that McCord had “nothing more to add to the story.” That left Jordan and Dr. V.
I called them both, and realized that they had given me the same phone number. Dr. V had said the number was for her lab with the “switchboard personnel.” This time, though, no one answered and I heard the outgoing message. What sounded like a young girl’s voice filled the receiver: “Thank you for calling Essay Vanderbilt and family …” The next day I tried again. No answer still, but the recording had changed. Instead of a young girl, the voice was Jordan’s: “Hello, you’ve reached the offices of Yar Golf …”
I was under the belief that what had transpired at Yar was ultimately harmless until I heard from a mysterious “silent investor” whom both Jordan and Dr. V had alluded to in our previous talks. His name was Phil Kinney. He was a retiree from Pittsburgh and he said he wasn’t the only one who had put money into the company. He had invested $60,000 — money that he believed he’d never see again.
It wasn’t that Kinney didn’t love Yar’s putter or have high hopes for its future. He had loved it from the moment he met Dr. V at a convention four years ago. (Before I told him about her past, he told me that because of her height and vivid red hair, it was hard to miss the “pretty woman walking toward me in a miniskirt.”) He still loved the club enough to sell it to friends and clients, too. But he had also come to know the frustrations of working with Dr. V.
Kinney had heard his own share of incredible claims. Dr. V had told him that she was a $1,000-an-hour consultant. She said she was one of the original designers of Bluetooth technology. She even suggested that her status as a Vanderbilt provided access to some exclusive company who could help Yar’s business. Kinney said Dr. V told him she was good friends with the Hilton family, and that the relationship would pay off in the form of putters sold at their hotels. Kinney also recalled a trip he had taken to Arizona where, in Dr. V’s house, she had shown him a computer that she said mirrored the one in Phoenix’s airport traffic control tower.
For all her wild stories, though, what Dr. V was most, Kinney said, was a difficult person to deal with. “She would just explode. If you’re disagreeing with her while she had one of her headaches, you were in trouble.” And Kinney often disagreed with Dr. V. He tried to get her to change the design of the putter. She wouldn’t budge. He tried to get her to change Yar’s confusing website. She had the same reaction. He even tried to convince Dr. V to let well-known club designers like Bobby Grace, whom Kinney said wanted to invest, buy into the company. “She just told me, ‘We don’t need him.'” It seemed unlikely that Yar would ever deliver a return on Kinney’s investment.
Maybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic. “I’m pretty dang gullible, I guess,” he said. For all the hassle that came with his partnership with Dr. V, what had kept him going was the putter. That was what Kinney couldn’t understand. If Yar had simply been a scam, the story would have been much simpler. But the Oracle worked. And Dr. V seemed more interested in achieving fame as a club designer than in getting rich.
“She could have took my money and ran,” he said. “But she didn’t. She took it and built a great product.”
Kinney said he was worried that the putter’s excellence would be lost in the strange tale of Dr. V. He genuinely believed the Oracle was a superior product. But at one point near the end of our conversation, he had a thought that seemed to trouble him. “Maybe I liked it because she convinced me before I even hit it,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as good as I think. Someone tells me a story, I believe it.”
The last time I heard from Dr. V she warned me that I was about to commit a hate crime. But before that, I received a voice mail from Jordan.
Neither of them had contacted me in months, since I had sent an email trying to confirm what I had discovered, and Jordan wrote back to deny everything. “Your attack tale should be published in the National Enquirer,” Jordan wrote, “right next to the article on Martians … If I am to believe your diatribe, what you are telling golfers is that the most scientifically advanced Near Zero MOI putter, and the science of the Inertia Matrix was invented by a lesbian auto mechanic.”
Now, Jordan’s message said she was calling to propose a deal. When I phoned her back, Jordan explained the offer. I could fly to Arizona and meet with Dr. V at her attorney’s office, where she would show me proof of her degrees from both MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. V then got on the phone and added another detail. Once I saw the documents I would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement barring me from revealing any of the details I’d learned about Dr. V’s past.
The “deal” was one I could not accept, and when I explained this Dr. V got upset. “What is your intention?” she asked. “Are you being paid by someone to destroy Yar?” Dr. V’s anger made it so that what she said came out fast and with almost no interruption. I tried to record everything she said and ask the occasional question, but it was like yelling into a wind tunnel. When she finally had said her piece, she handed the phone back to Jordan. “Well, I guess you’re just going to print what you’re going to print,” Jordan said. “Try to lead a decent life. Have a good one.” Then she hung up.
A few days later, Dr. V sent one final email. It had her signature mix of scattered punctuation and randomly capitalized words. Once upon a time I had brushed off these grammatical quirks, but now they seemed like outward expressions of the inner chaos she struggled to contain. “To whom this may concern,” it read. “I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”
Over the course of what was now eight months of reporting, Dr. V had accused me of being everything from a corporate spy to a liar and a fraud. She had also threatened me. One of the quotes I was able to type down during our last conversation was this: “You have no idea what I have done and what I can do.” It’s not all that menacing when transcribed, but her tone made it clear she believed she could harm me. Yet despite all that, the main emotion I felt while reading her desperate, last-ditch email was sadness. Although there were times when I had been genuinely thrilled with the revelation that Dr. V’s official narrative didn’t line up with reality, there was nothing satisfying about where the story had ended up. People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies, but she was the person who seemed to be suffering most.
Not long after she sent her email, I got a call from a Pennsylvania phone number that I didn’t recognize. It was Dr. V’s ex-brother-in-law, who represented the closest I had gotten to finding someone who could tell me what she’d been like in her previous life. “Well, there’s one less con man in the world now,” he said. Even though he hated his former family member, this seemed like an especially cruel way to tell me that Dr. V had died. All he could tell me was what he knew — that it had been a suicide. A few weeks later a police report filled in the details.
Around 11 a.m. on October 18, Jordan walked into the home office she shared with Dr. V and found pieces from her business partner’s jewelry collection laid out on a desk next to some handwritten letters. Each letter explained which friend or family member was to get which piece of jewelry in case of Dr. V’s death. Jordan then noticed that Dr. V’s car was missing. At first, Jordan explained to the police, she didn’t think much of the missing vehicle. Jordan prepared some breakfast and then drove to her nearby apartment. When Jordan arrived and reached her bedroom, she found Dr. V lying on the floor curled in a fetal position with a white plastic bag over her head; an empty bottle of pills sat on the kitchen counter.
Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience. What makes it that much harder is that Dr. V left so few details — on purpose, of course. Those who knew her in her past life refused to talk about her. Those who knew her in the life she had created were helpful right up to the point where that new life began to look like a lie. The only person who can provide this strange story with its proper ending is the person who started it. The words she spoke came during our last conversation, when she was frantically trying to convince me of things I knew couldn’t possibly be true. Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”