ERIN, Wis. – On my way out of the golf course Thursday, in the caddie parking lot, I saw Bob Lang, the original owner of Erin Hills, in his black truck, with its worn carpets and saggy driver’s seat. He bragged on it as a cowboy would about his best-friend horse. Lang told me he and the truck had logged many miles on Erin Hills, when he was figuring out what parcels to buy and which hole should go where.
He wondered how I could recognize him but I told him that sometimes I watch TV. If you watch TV and you’re interested in golf, by now you know what Bob Lang looks like. The Golf Channel features and the superb Gary D’Amato series in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the various write-ups on various websites and various magazines prepared me for some of his set pieces. He told me about his collection of Lincoln portraits. How much he likes Mike Davis of the USGA. His relationship with Steve Trattner, the man who first showed Lang the land and later killed his wife. The novel he’s writing. The nondisclosure agreement he has with the current owner, Andy Ziegler. The success of Lang Calendars and where that money went. But nothing prepared me for the physicality of the man.
He’s 72, not tall, a little paunchy, with a tremendous head of hair and extraordinary vitality. He speaks not just with his hands but also with his arms and body.
“Look,” he says, moving away from his truck, evidently needing more space. “I bought a parcel here.” He put his right hand up in the air and turned it into a fist. “I bought a parcel here.” Ditto, but now with left hand. “And then I had an option on this.” On the word option, he drew his hand back like he was pulling the chord on a lawn mower.
I asked him what the gesture meant.
“Time,” he said. “Time.”
He tried to send me some kind of audio file. I think he said it was a movie or a music video, or both, and that it was more than two hours in length, and that I was the second person to whom he had sent it, an Open security guard being the first. I got an e-mail from him, marked “Aaron Hills,” but there was no attachment.
I suggested that for his next foray into golf he build a nine-hole course in a city where kids could play. He said he liked the idea but didn’t know where he would get the money for it.
“What did you do for lunch today, Bob?”
“I didn’t have lunch. I got here at 11.”
“But now it’s six-forty.”
“I had a bowl of rice.”
“That’s not much of a lunch.”
“But it was good.”
“Where’d you have it?” I asked.
You don’t see a lot of rice at golf tournaments, in my experience.
“In USGA hospitality,” he said.
Well, that was good to hear, that he was eating lunch, if you could call it that, on the USGA’s dime. The man’s earned that much.
I am writing this at an Italian restaurant called North Lake Inn, about eight miles south of the course. There are two Japanese players in the tournament at the table next to me, eating spaghetti and meatballs. A local woman with a beautiful Badger accent welcomed the golfers to North Lake.
“How do you like the course?” she said.
“Long,” one of them said.
“Well, we’re glad to have you here. Do your best and work hard and everything will work out just fine.”
Without Lang, that conversation does not happen. Those golfers from Japan would not be at the North Lake Inn. Neither would I. The nice local lady, maybe she would be, but she wouldn’t be talking about a U.S. Open in her backyard.
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