The man who found the land for Erin Hills will watch the U.S. Open from prison

Tuesday June 6th, 2017
4:25 | Courses and Travel
Exploring Erin Hills one month before the U.S. Open
GOLF.com's Jeff Ritter heads to Erin Hills in Wisconsin to play the new course before it hosts its first major championship.

This story is the latest installment in the Sports Illustrated True Crime series, which explores the intersection of sports and crime through in-depth storytelling, enhanced photos, video and interactive elements. For more features in this series, visit the SI True Crime homepage.

***

An hour northwest of Erin Hills golf course, site of this month's U.S. Open, Wisconsin Highway 49 spills through a farm-country montage of green fields, red barns and silver-topped grain silos before winding up at Waupun, a sleepy 11,000-person city plopped amid the crops and pastures. Past its commercial fringe of convenience stores and diners, Waupun gives way to a grid of modest homes, which in turn surround the most striking local structure: a sprawling stone fortress ringed by barbed wire, with a crenellated watchtower rising from its heart.

Built in 1851, Waupun Correctional Institution resembles a medieval castle but functions as a maximum-security penitentiary for murderers, rapists and other violent felons, including the likes of Steven Avery, the central character in Netflix's 2015 documentary Making a Murderer. On a recent afternoon the facility's visiting center, a large, fluorescent-lit cafeteria-like room, was filled with tattooed and scarfaced inmates. Seated at low-slung, evenly spaced tables, they chatted with their wives, girlfriends and children, uniformed guards presiding on all sides.

The outlier in the room, a soft-spoken man in a green prisoner's jumpsuit, leaned forward in a chair with his hands clasped in his lap. "Oh, I'm going to be watching every minute of the tournament," he said. "For so many years that place was my home away from home."

At 55, slightly built and balding, eyes peering out from behind round wire-framed glasses, Steve Trattner cuts the profile of a guy you'd ring for help with your computer—which is precisely the type of work he did before setting off on his improbable path to incarceration.

In the mid-90s, married, with a home in the Milwaukee suburbs and two children on the way, Trattner, a middling golfer who nonetheless fantasized about carving out a life in the game, abandoned a steady job as a software programmer and embarked on a quixotic quest to build a golf course. He possessed nowhere near the wealth for such a project, much less the land to accommodate it. But he had in mind a site, in the small town of Erin. He also had the gumption to cold-call would-be investors until he found his man in a mercurial entrepreneur with no previous interest or experience in the business side of the sport.

In August 2006, Erin Hills opened to the public. GOLF Magazine named it the Best New Course of the Year. But on June 15, when the national championship gets underway, Trattner will watch on TV in the prison where he has resided for the past 11 years, having served less than one third of his sentence.

Trattner quit his software job and spent two years traveling the state in search of the perfect piece of land for a golf course.
Bob Lang

The coverage he sees is bound to feature retrospectives on the architects, investors and assorted industry bigwigs who helped bring Wisconsin its first-ever U.S. Open. Likely to be omitted from the broadcast, however, is any mention of Trattner, his instrumental role in developing Erin Hills or the horrific deed he perpetrated just months before his dream course came to fruition.

"The U.S. Open is a big deal for Wisconsin; it's going to bring millions and millions of dollars to the state," says Bob Lang, the investor who teamed with Trattner on the project. "But the fact is: Without Steve there is no U.S. Open [in Wisconsin]. Because without Steve there is no Erin Hills."

***

The account Trattner offers today of the crime that put him away differs from the crime he ultimately copped to. But the narrative he tells of his life in golf and his involvement in Erin Hills, relayed through phone calls, letters and a face-to-face meeting, is unwavering in its detail. It's the story of a man who loved the game more than it loved him back.

Raised in a leafy suburb of Milwaukee as the eldest of three children, Steve Trattner wasn't born into a golf family—his father was a history professor, his mother a housewife. But like most golf junkies, he remembers the moment he got hooked. It was 1974, the summer after sixth grade. His best friend took him to a local par-3, nine-hole course, and from his first swing Trattner was enchanted. A few hours, a par and two bogeys later, the spell was permanently cast.

At Whitefish Bay High, Trattner gave up baseball, his first sport, for a summer job caddying at Milwaukee Country Club, among the most exclusive courses in the Midwest. (He worked the job through college and between his junior and senior years was promoted to the rank of caddiemaster.) Playing high school golf would have been nice too, but it was out of the question. Whitefish Bay's state championship-winning squad was stocked with studs, and on good days Trattner struggled to break 80. His connection to the team came instead through his work as the yearbook's sports editor, which frequently had him at practices, snapping photos.

"Steve was not what you would call a jock, but he loved sports and he hung out with a lot of athletes," says Bill Linneman, a member of Whitefish Bay's golf team who graduated with Trattner in 1980 and who now serves as the tournament director for the Wisconsin State Golf Association. "He was a quiet, nerdy kind of guy—a team manager type."

Trattner told much of his story to our reporter through a series of handwritten letters.

Trattner was both an academic achiever and a wannabe golf bum, and he found outlets for both interests at Williams College, a well-regarded school whose campus course, Taconic, is the top-ranked public track in Massachusetts. There he studied math and computer science. He also signed up for Williams's golf team, embarking on a brief competitive career that was as humiliating as it was short-lived. With his first tournament swing ever, on Taconic's par-5 opening hole, Trattner duck-hooked his tee shot into the trees en route to a double-bogey 7. His opponent, meanwhile, smashed a driver down the middle, smoked a five-wood to 10 feet and drained his putt for an eagle 3. Convinced that he was in over his head, Trattner shook his partner's hand, apologized and left.

One year after college, Trattner was back in the Milwaukee area, working a job he hated at a banking software company. He was making a living but what he wanted was a way of life—specifically one scented with the smell of fresh-cut grass and punctuated with the clack of spikes on gravel.

Here his country club connections came in handy. In 1990, through a referral from a venerated teaching pro at Milwaukee Country Club, Trattner landed an entry-level position at the Wisconsin State Golf Association. The salary was half of what he'd been making at the software company, and his responsibilities were as basic as helping to computerize tournament scorekeeping and course ratings—nothing high glamor—but it was a start, and it kept him close to the greens and fairways.

For a while, at least. Trattner's boss was executive director Gene Haas, a prominent figure in Wisconsin golf circles who was known for his tough-as-nails tournament setups as well as for a confidence that verged on arrogance. Trattner disliked the way Haas ran things, and Haas grew disappointed with how Trattner handled his job.

"Looking back, maybe I could have done more to bring him along, to get him to take more of the initiative," says Haas. "But he was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who had what you might call a ‘different' way of expressing himself. For whatever reasons, it just didn't work out."

A clash of personalities surely played a part.

"People have a way of letting you know who they are when you first meet them," Haas goes on. "Think of a guy like Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The instant he walked into a room, everybody knew they were looking at a mountain of a man. Steve Trattner was the exact opposite of that."

Eleven months after his stint began, Trattner submitted his resignation, and by early 1991 he was back at the same software company, doing the same work he couldn't stand. The one bright spot of that job: It's where he met the woman who would become his wife.

At 21, Sin Lam, a sharp, vivacious Hong Kong-born go-getter, was seven years Trattner's junior when she joined his department. The wedding of one of their colleagues was approaching, and Lam, a new hire, hadn't received an invitation. Trattner, who had an invite but not a date, asked if she'd like to join him.

It wasn't love at first sight, but it was love soon enough. The two married in June 1993.

"They were very different people," says a former colleague who asked not to be identified. "She was so warm and outgoing, and he was sort of stiff and quietly controlling. But people wouldn't have necessarily looked at them and seen any obvious signs of trouble."

***

Up until the point he became an outcast, Trattner was something of a sports world archetype: the golf obsessive. Like a vagabond caddie or some Tin Cup minitour pro, he longed so deeply for a life in the game that he couldn't make peace with any other path.

By the mid-1990s, when he was living with Lam in the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon, Trattner was back to feeling thwarted by his same-old nine-to-five. He daydreamed of finding the land and funding to build a golf course, but he worried about giving up a steady paycheck for such a fanciful pursuit.

It was Lam, he says, who urged him past his hesitations: "She basically gave me an ultimatum. She didn't want to be married to someone who was too chicken to try."

Before long, Trattner quit his software job for a second time. Liberated from his cubicle, he spent the next two years scouring Wisconsin in search of a suitable site. In the summer of 1997 he came across a swath of land on what was once a cattle farm in the Kettle Moraine, a glaciated region of grassy dunes and hollows with the kind of lilting movement that makes golf geeks swoon. The property, 30 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, was a perfect canvas on which to etch a course. In fact, someone was already trying.

A local couple, Matt and Lillian Williamson, had secured an option to buy the land from a cattle farmer, and an up-and-coming architect, Tom Doak, had drafted an 18-hole routing for it. Trattner introduced himself to the Williamsons and began consulting on the project, which was planned for a high-end private club with around 200 members.

But when the enterprise ran into unexpected hurdles, including one investor's cold feet, the Williamsons pulled out and the deal unraveled. "It was then," Trattner says, "that I made it my mission to make sure the [land] still became a golf course."

For someone viewed as shy and self-effacing, the degree to which Trattner asserted himself was extraordinary. Exhausting his Rolodex, he dialed around the state, reaching out to deep-pocketed potential investors. But no one nibbled. Months passed, and time was running out. The farmer who owned the land was getting ready to take it off the market and parcel it out to family heirs.

Then, one summer evening in 1999, Trattner got a call back from Bob Lang.

An unknown in golf circles who, in turn, knew little about the sport, Lang had made a fortune on calendars and greeting cards, and he bolstered that wealth in real estate development, building painstakingly faithful Colonial-style homes in a bedroom community of Milwaukee. (On the side he's also amassed what is said to be the country's largest private collection of 19th-century Abraham Lincoln paintings, including one that formerly hung in the White House.)

Rich and eccentric, with a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants openness to risk, Lang was everything Trattner could have hoped for. Lang, on the other hand, wasn't sure what he had in Trattner, who didn't exactly meet his image of a golf industry mover and shaker.

"[Steve] would show up for meetings in shorts and white sneakers," Lang says. "I would kid him about looking so nerdy, but in the back of my mind I also wondered whether maybe he wasn't the kind of guy you'd want representing a golf property."

Those doubts didn't deter Lang. Smitten by the site and tickled by the idea of building a golf course, he purchased the property for $2.5 million and named Trattner his project manager, an unofficial title for an unsalaried position. At the beginning the pay was a sporadic stipend of several hundred bucks. Lang later bumped that up to $2,000 a month—but the money was beside the point.

"I was ecstatic just to be a part of it," Trattner says. "I would have done it all for free."

***

Business plans and marriages are not at all the same, but they often fall apart in a similar fashion: gradually, then suddenly.

By 2000, with Lang's deal on the land nearly set to close and the golf course inching forward on paper, Trattner had transformed from an industry nobody into a figure with unexpected pull. Tasked by Lang with narrowing down a roster of potential architects, Trattner found himself reviewing the portfolios of such major names as Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus. Because other Dye designs were close by, Trattner ruled him out. There was nothing wrong with Nicklaus, or Tom Doak, who'd already done a course routing on the site, or any of the other candidates Trattner placed on his short list. But while Trattner did the vetting, the decision, ultimately, was Lang's, and when Lang made it, he chose the trio of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten.

The original concept that the three architects put forth was for what Whitten called a "blue-collar Whistling Straits," a top-notch but affordable course that would cost less than $3 million to construct and command green fees of around $50. Trattner loved the idea. Lang said he did too. But as with so much else in both of their lives, that plan soon went off the rails.

Exactly when the wrong turns started is difficult to pinpoint, but one moment to consider is June 2000, when both men flew to California to attend the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Whereas Trattner watched the action as a rabid golf fan, Lang used the trip as a comparative mission. Strolling around the famous coastal layout in Monterey, he became convinced that the land he'd purchased was an even more compelling setting for a golf course. If Pebble Beach could host a U.S. Open, so could Erin Hills.

At first, Lang kept that thought mostly to himself—but it wasn't long before he acted on it. As he saw it, a more ambitious goal required a more ambitious project, and so he acquired adjacent parcels to the original property, expanding his footprint. Two ridgetop homes overlooked the site, so Lang bought and removed them, only to improve the views.

Hands-on as a home builder, Lang was all of that and more as a course developer, showing up almost daily to offer (or impose) his opinions. He tweaked greens and fairways without telling the architects. He would hop on a tractor or grab a shovel to dig out bunkers that weren't in the design. He insisted on building a lavish clubhouse when a temporary trailer would have sufficed.

As time wore on, Trattner joined the architects in a chorus of voices advising Lang to cut back on the spending. "He was digging himself deeper and deeper," says Trattner. "We would say, ‘Bob, you just turned a $3 million project into a $5 million project,' but he was a man with a plan and he wasn't going to do anything halfway." Looking back, Lang acknowledges that "my passion evolved into an obsession."

Trattner (far right) found the funding in Lang (second from right), who in turn lined up the architects: Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten.
Bob Lang

That he wouldn't listen was worrisome to Trattner. By then, though, Trattner had troubles of his own.

The course quest he'd set out upon in 1995 was almost a decade old, and it wasn't washing well at home, where he and Lam now had two children. Already disenchanted with the marriage, Lam—who as early as 2001 had told confidants that she wanted a divorce; she informed Trattner, but one of Lam's friends says Trattner talked her into staying—was further put off by the drawn-out project, which friends say she'd come to see as the indulgence of a husband who didn't pull his weight.

"She was very patient and supportive, but they originally agreed that Steve would pursue [building the course] for five years," says one of Lam's friends and former colleagues. "She worked her tail off as the breadwinner and a mom. She felt more and more constrained by him."

The two tried counseling, but by late 2005 their marriage was a union in name only. They often slept in separate rooms. Lam told one friend that she was looking for an apartment, and she asked another for referrals for a divorce attorney.

Distressed at the deterioration of his domestic life, Trattner found some solace in the near fulfillment of a dream: Erin Hills was set to open in the summer of 2006, bringing his home state a world-class golf course and Trattner the career (and cachet) he craved.

"I was going to be the general manager, and that would have been heaven for me," he says. "I could have brought any of my friends who love golf out there and given them free rounds—and of course I could have played all around too. I'd say: Come bring your people to Erin Hills, and then we'll come out and play your course."

***

On Jan. 3, 2006, with Erin Hills' christening ceremony still eight months off, there was no golf to be played in or around Milwaukee—a winter squall had swept through the region. Bill Linneman was shoveling his driveway in his quiet Mequon neighborhood, his wife shaping a snowman in the front yard, when from around the corner came a slender, bespectacled man pulling two young children on a sled. Steve Trattner was out with his son and daughter, who later that month would turn 10 and seven, respectively.

A stalwart of the state golf association, Linneman was often struck by the small-world nature of the Wisconsin golf scene. Crossing paths with Trattner was another reminder.

The two men grew up together, graduated in the same high school class … and as adults they'd settled in the same Milwaukee suburb, their homes only a few blocks apart.

Like most everyone in his professional circles, Linneman had stayed abreast of the progress at Erin Hills, the most talked-about golf course in the state. And like pretty much everyone else who knew Trattner, Linneman had been surprised when he learned of his former classmate's involvement in such a prominent project. "Pretty much anyone I talked to, the reaction was the same," he says. "It was: Wait, what? Steve Trattner is building a golf course?"

It was difficult for insiders to imagine Trattner leading the transformation of Erin Hills from grassy dunes to a U.S. Open course.
Paul Hundley
 
In the fall of 2005, Linneman had toured Erin Hills with Trattner and Lang, and he'd listened as both men gushed about its prospects. Impressed by the design, Linneman understood all the fuss.

On this frosty morning, however, Erin Hills didn't come up in conversation. As Trattner approached, Linneman broke from his shoveling and waved. Trattner waved back. They exchanged pleasantries and Trattner continued on his way. "It was all totally ordinary—just a father out for a sled ride with his kids," Linneman says. "I guess it's like they say: You think you know a guy. … "

The next time Linneman saw Trattner came two nights later. On TV. In a mug shot.

News vans littered the streets of Mequon. Aerial views of the Trattner home beamed across the airwaves from choppers hovering overhead. Sin Lam was dead, and Trattner was in custody, depicted by investigators as a man who'd "snapped."

The report by the Mequon Police Department recounted things this way: Around 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 4, Trattner pummeled and strangled Lam in their kitchen during an altercation that erupted when she reasserted her plans to file for divorce. Though Trattner described Lam as the aggressor, he admitted to slamming her against a cupboard and banging her head repeatedly on the floor. After killing his wife, the report said, Trattner dragged her to the living room, covered her with blankets and went to bed. The next morning, as he shepherded his children off to school, Trattner told them not to wake their mother. He then went out for an Erin Hills-related meeting followed by lunch with an old friend. He returned home in the early afternoon and called 911, but not before placing sleep-aid pills at Lam's side to suggest that she'd committed suicide.

In his initial statement, Trattner told police that he'd acted in self defense, that he'd believed Lam was about to lunge for a knife on the kitchen counter. He said that he'd managed to subdue her and that she was still conscious when he brought her to the living room.

But five months later Trattner pleaded no contest to first-degree reckless homicide and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, five to 10 years more than the state had requested.

Just as Trattner's golf dream was realized, a nightmare unfolded at home: a deadly kitchen clash with Lam.
Wisconsin Department of Correction

That same summer Erin Hills opened to the public. In 2010 it was awarded hosting duties for the '17 U.S. Open. Trattner, of course, was no longer involved. But Neither was Lang. In late '09, having poured nearly all of his cash into the project, Lang sold Erin Hills to hedge fund manager Andy Ziegler for a reported $10,041,900—less than half of what Lang had spent to bring his vision into being.

With media buzz building around the U.S. Open, Lang has kept mostly mum on Erin Hills these days, other than to acknowledge Trattner's crucial contributions. The two men remain friends, and Lang still pays periodic visits to prison. Beyond that, Lang says that a nondisclosure agreement with Ziegler prevents him from talking about the course, but it's clear that the topic torments him.

Trattner is under no such constraints. In conversations and in handwritten correspondences there is a savant quality to his recollections of Erin Hills. More than a decade since he last set foot on the course, he remembers every wrinkle of every green and fairway. ("The entire left side [of the 3rd hole],” he recalled in a letter, “is a sedge meadow wetland, with some tamarack trees which turn yellow in autumn.”)​ He conjures wistful images of moments spent alone or with Lang on the grounds, debating the nuances of design or admiring the sunset view from an elevated tee box as ducks and cranes alighted against a rosy sky.

Now and then, these trips down memory lane are shadowed by the sense of responsibility that he bears for drawing Lang into the project in the first place. "I can't help but feel guilty and awful for how it devastated Bob and his family," he says.

What he says he isn't guilty of is first-degree reckless homicide. He insists that he acted in self defense.

In the years since his conviction, Trattner has appealed his case three times. In the course of those motions (all denied) he has sought to withdraw his plea while challenging, among other things, the propriety of his sentence and the competency of his initial legal defense. His most recent appeal claims that his decision to plead no contest was influenced by evidence he argues the state withheld and that his sentencing should have been lighter given the findings of a subsequent independent autopsy review. Although this third motion was rejected by a circuit court in January, it is not yet completely dead. A higher court will review it at an undetermined date.

Until recently, Trattner says he held out hope that he'd be free in time to attend the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. He now accepts that he'll be watching instead on Fox Sports. Trattner has his own cell, with a 19-inch Zenith tube television in the corner. On the walls are photographs of his children, with whom he has reconnected in recent years. He says that their success—Andy, 21, will graduate from MIT next spring and Wendy, 18, will start her freshman year at the same school this fall—is largely what sustains him as he seeks to have his case reviewed.

In a footlocker beneath Trattner's bed lies a coffee table book about Erin Hills, thick with lavish photos. The text, written by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Gary D'Amato, originally stretched to 20,000-odd words and detailed Trattner's involvement in the course. But the narrative has since been edited substantially, and all references to Trattner have been exorcised.

Murder isn't great for marketing. For most anyone involved with Erin Hills or the U.S. Open, Trattner's story is better left ignored. The official stance on him, to the extent that there is one, is pretty well encapsulated by one of the three architects, Ron Whitten, who declined to discuss Trattner other than to say, "He did the crime. He's doing the time. He's got nothing to do with the U.S. Open or Erin Hills."

There are moments when even Steve Trattner wishes that were true.

"At times I definitely wish I'd never pursued [the course], truly," he says. "Bob and I and our families would likely be so much better off."

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