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.