Bob Lang dreamed Erin Hills into existence—then watched it slip through his fingers

Saturday May 27th, 2017
1:31 | Tour & News
Previewing Erin Hills, Host of the 2017 U.S. Open

Bob Lang no longer speaks publicly about Erin Hills, the course he used to own. At 72, that part of his life has passed, he says.

You suspect he's proud of his improbable accomplishment: building a world-class layout in rural Erin, Wisconsin, and giving his home state its first-ever U.S. Open. But you also sense it's a source of pain, a reminder to Lang of all he poured into the property, only to see it become someone else's just as his vision was taking shape.

"Oh, I could give you details, so many details," Lang says. "But the thing is…"

He pauses.

"I won't."

It falls to others to tease out the tangled story of an upstart course that has gone on to glory without the man who brought it to life. It's a tale that features a familiar cast of golf-world characters—architects, investors, USGA officials. It also includes other odd twists—a patch of land in the middle of nowhere, a run-amok John Deere tractor and a seemingly mild-mannered golf geek who killed his wife.

At the center of the narrative, though, stands the Don Quixote figure of Lang. A former hearing-aid salesman and homebuilder, he amassed a fortune in the calendar business before embarking on a quest to create a national championship–worthy golf course in Wisconsin, even though he wasn't a golfer. Lang became so consumed with the endeavor, and spent so much time and money fine-tuning the course, that the costs of the project, along with its ownership, spun out of control.

"One thing that's important to understand about Bob is that he's a true artist," says USGA executive director Mike Davis. "He loves building things, and he always has to have something to keep him busy. Whether he made mistakes or not, I'm not going to judge. But I will say that without him, there's no way we would have the wonderful course we have today."

 

Davis first met Lang in the summer of 2004, when Davis traveled to Wisconsin for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Prior to his trip, at the urging of a golf-architect acquaintance, Davis agreed to make a detour to a layout-in-the-making. The site was so spectacular, the architect had promised, that it could someday host a U.S. Open. As he drove through farm country, 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, Davis noticed nothing of the sort. What he saw was pasture, unspoiled but uninspired for the USGA's purposes. Great for grazing but not for golf.

"I remember thinking, What am I doing here?," Davis says. "It felt like I was on a wild goose chase."

His misgivings growing, Davis climbed a rise known as Holy Hill, where there sits a Roman Catholic basilica. His doubts about the setting gave way to disbelief. Before him lay terrain that unfurled like a rumpled bed sheet, its lumps and folds reminiscent of the coastal dunes of Scotland.

"I thought, Oh my god, what just happened here?," Davis recalls.

The answer, in part: 20,000 years earlier, a glacier retreated across the landscape, leaving coarse footprints and sandy deposits in its wake. Geological forces had begun shaping a golf course.

Eons later, Bob Lang resumed nature's work.

Unknown in golf circles, Lang's name was widely recognized around Wisconsin from the calendars he sold through the Lang Companies, an enterprise he built into a $65 million business.

Though he rarely played golf himself, Lang had long considered building a nine-hole course for his employees. Whether it ever would have materialized is uncertain had he not been contacted out of the blue by a soft-spoken computer programmer who spent his 9-to-5 daydreaming about the game.

A former caddie at Milwaukee Country Club who'd also worked for the Wisconsin State Golf Association, Steve Trattner longed to leave cubicle life for one spent building and operating a golf course. On a constant search for sites, Trattner eventually found a great one on glaciated land a half-hour's drive from Milwaukee, in tiny Erin (population: 4,525). What he didn't have were pockets deep enough to buy the property and finance course construction. He needed an investor. In the spring of 1999, Trattner began cold-calling Lang.

"For months I wrote and called his office, but the only word I got was that Bob was 'too busy,'" Trattner says by phone from Waupun Correctional Institution, the Wisconsin prison where he is serving a 35-year sentence for killing his wife in 2006.

Spring of 1999 turned to summer, and Trattner had all but given up when his phone rang. It was Lang, asking to meet the following morning.

"So we're out there, and I show him the site, and Bob, like everyone who sees it, is blown away, and he knows that he can do much more than nine holes," Trattner remembers. "At that point, he could have just cut me out and gone on to build the course without me. But he said he wanted me as his project manager, and he kept his word." From that point on, Trattner says, Lang entrusted him with nearly everything related to the project, from interviewing architects to securing permits.

(Lang declined to discuss these details but says, "Anything Steve tells you that happened at Erin Hills is true.")

After the '08 U.S. Women's Amateur, Lang mounted a tractor and carved new traps for the '11 U.S. Men's Amateur.
Todd Bigelow/AURORA

Trattner was imprisoned before the course was completed, but he was on the site with Lang in 2004, on the morning of Mike Davis's first visit. So was Ron Whitten, a golf writer who, with Dana Fry and Mike Hurdzan, made up the trio of course designers Lang hired to shape Erin Hills. By then, an 18-hole routing had been drawn up, its outlines roughly mown across the property. The group spent hours walking it from start to finish, taking in the layout's linksy moguls and dunes.

"As we're going along, I'm not only thinking about how the course would play for the world's best," Davis says. "I'm also thinking about the parking and operations and how much space there was to move people around. I can tell it's an outstanding property. At the same time, I'm trying to limit my enthusiasm. So before I leave I basically say, 'Thanks for the great day, guys. You've got great potential here. We'd love to be kept abreast.'"

The governing bodies did more than stay abreast. They awarded Erin Hills the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links before the course even opened to the public in 2006. On opening day, greens fees were $150, three times higher than what Lang had envisioned. But buzz about the property was swelling. GOLF named Erin Hills the best new public layout of 2006.

Lang was honored. But he wanted more. He wanted Erin Hills to host a U.S. Open.

Exactly where the line lies between a healthy interest and an obsession is difficult to determine, but it's certain that Bob Lang crossed it. In the wake of Davis's first visit, Lang bought adjacent parcels to increase the property's footprint. He purchased several ridge-top homes and then paid for their removal to make the course's vistas even more pristine.

In 2008, when the USGA announced that Erin Hills would host the 2011 U.S. Amateur, Lang undertook further alterations, going about his business with a frenzied focus reminiscent of Kevin Costner's famous movie farmer who cut down his corn to create his field of dreams. Except that Lang built bunkers. Lots of bunkers.

"Bob felt he needed to add 100 of them before the U.S. Amateur," Whitten says. "I talked to [Mike] Davis about it, and he [wanted] pretty much the opposite. His view was, 'Let's see how the course plays in the U.S. Amateur, and if you get the Open, you'll have plenty of time to make any changes you need.' I don't say this to be critical of Bob. I had his best interests and the best interests of Erin Hills in mind. I kept telling him that he was spending money that he didn't have."

In August 2015, USGA executive director Mike Davis (left) made one of his many visits to Erin Hills, toughening an already difficult course for this year's U.S. Open.
Paul Hundley

The concerns were aesthetic as well as economic. In drafting their design, Whitten, Hurdzan and Fry had opted to tread lightly, moving as little earth as possible and letting Erin Hills's natural landforms shine. For the most part, the USGA approved.

"Our input was that in just a few cases, maybe it was minimalism gone too far," Davis says. "On the whole, our suggestions [for changes] were fairly modest."

Still, some people hear what they want to hear—including a former hearing-aid salesman. Lang kept shelling out for aggressive alterations to the course, and at one point manned a John Deere tractor himself, carving out bunkers and relocating greens. According to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the modest modifications recommended by the USGA would have cost around $300,000. Lang spent eight times that, taking on loans that he couldn't repay, according to newspaper reports.

In 2010, Erin Hills was named the host of the 2017 U.S. Open, the youngest-ever course to earn the nod. That was the good news. The bad news was that Lang no longer owned it. In late 2009, under swelling financial pressure, he was compelled to sell, signing the property over to its current owner, a Milwaukee-based money manager named Andy Ziegler.

Nearly eight years have passed since Lang lost his labor of love. He spends his days in his home office in a Milwaukee suburb, writing self-published novels and fighting to keep the Erin Hills heartache in perspective. There are a few souvenirs he keeps close by: a cornerstone from the clubhouse, the original sign that marked the entrance, and the John Deere he mounted to literally put his stamp on the course.

In 2011, Lang showed up at Erin Hills to attend the U.S. Amateur, and he'll be back again this month for the U.S. Open, where he'll watch the world's best compete in the game's stoutest test, on a layout unfamiliar to most of them. As fans swarm a course he constructed—taking in a tournament that, were it not for him, would almost certainly be competed elsewhere—what will Lang be thinking?

He's content to let us wonder.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world. That's all I'll say."

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