It isn't every day that an article about golf—or more specifically, golf equipment—explodes into controversy. But that is precisely what happened with Caleb Hannan's Jan. 15 Grantland piece on "Dr. V," a woman whose creation, the Oracle GX1 putter, became the talk of the golf world.
The gist of the story is this: Hannan first encounters the putter when he sees Gary McCord, a veteran golf broadcaster, endorse the club with great enthusiasm. But even more interesting than the putter—which features a unique, counterintuitive design—is its creator: a mysterious physicist named Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. An MIT graduate who once worked on top-secret weapons programs for the Department of Defense, Vanderbilt was an eccentric figure who initially resisted Hannan’s inquiries into her personal life, but then consented to an interview after Hannan pledged to keep the focus on the putter. When Hannan began to dig into Vanderbilt’s background, he discovered that she had fabricated her academic and professional credentials, and, in fact, had not been born female: Vanderbilt spent much of her life as a man named Stephen Krol. Vanderbilt begged, threatened, and cajoled Hannan to omit these details in his profile of the putter, but the journalist demurred. Last October, one month after Vanderbilt cut off all contact with Hannan and accused him of intentions to commit a “hate crime,” she took her own life.
Hardly anyone is suggesting that Hannan's reporting is directly responsible for Vanderbilt's suicide; she struggled with depression and had previously attempted to kill herself in 2008. It’s also easy to see why Hannan chose to focus so much attention on her background. Putting is golf's purest form of psychological terror. The slightest mistake—in grip, touch, or motion—can ruin a perfectly good performance. Serious players invest enormous time and money in finding the best equipment, and club makers earn fortunes from even the smallest technological advancements. McCord, a longtime professional, was so taken with Vanderbilt because he believed her distinguished background lent the putter a certain scientific legitimacy. If Vanderbilt’s past was a lie, then, could we trust the science behind her putter?