lone oak tree stands between the 15th and 16 holes
during the U.S. Open golf tournament.
Photo by John Ehlke/Daily
The builders of this captivating
golf course have known for more than seven years that the 2017 U.S.
Open would come to Erin Hills.
And yet, a week before Wisconsin’s first U.S. Open, co-architect
Dana Fry rode around the property with a sense of wonder.
“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” Fry said while standing on
the No. 10 tee. “To try to describe the whole chain of events is
like writing a movie that everyone would think is made up. But this
“The most common denominating factor is that everyone involved all
became instantly passionate about it, to the point of some people
becoming obsessed about it to where rational decisions were not
The “some people” is in reference to one in particular, Bob Lang.
You’ll hear his name a lot this week with the tournament beginning
Thursday. He was the subject of an extensive GolfWeek.com piece
(“Erin Hills founder Bob Lang sits in background as U.S. Open vision
emerges”) and the Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella interviewed him for
two days for an eight-minute piece that aired Monday night on “Live
from the U.S. Open.”
The golf course at Erin Hills as seen on Monday, June
Photo by John Ehlke/Daily News
Lang’s tale is both triumphant and tragic.
He caddied in Danville, Ill., as a kid and made his mark mainly in
real estate and greeting cards. He’s not a golfer, but when Bernice
Millikin put her 430-acre cattle farm 35 miles outside Milwaukee up
for sale, Lang met the $2.5 million asking price.
Many others took a look — and then took a pass. Paul Hundley, a
professional photographer who tried to put together a group to buy
the land, estimated that three open houses drew more than 600
developers from Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
“Everyone loved the property,” Hundley said. “But they said a golf
course would never work here. It’s too remote. I’d love to gather
them all together and say, ‘See that sign?’ It says: ‘U.S. Open.’ ”
Lang became consumed with building a golf course to challenge the
world’s best, favoring a par-73 that would stretch well past 8,000
yards. He clashed with designers Fry, Michael Hurdzan and Golf
Digest architecture critic Ron Whitten, eventually “disinviting”
Whitten from the team.
Lang dug out his own bunkers and fought to keep a giant oak tree on
the first hole. As costs spiraled and conditioning of the course
sunk, concern grew that Erin Hills would lose the 2011 U.S. Amateur
and any chance for a U.S. Open.
Finally and reluctantly, Lang sold the property to Andy Ziegler, a
Milwaukee investment-fund manager, in 2009 for $10.5 million.
“When Andy took over,” Fry said, “there were ruts on the first
fairway. You could break your ankles.”
Ziegler’s financial commitment included a huge investment in
maintenance, a new clubhouse and giant new practice area that Steve
Stricker, in chatting with Fry last week, called “pure.”
Ziegler also agreed to take a major financial hit by closing the
course to public play from October until after Open week.
Said Stricker: “There are no divots, no ball marks on the greens.
It’s in phenomenal shape.”
Lang signed a non-disclosure agreement in 2009 that prevents him
from discussing the details of Ziegler’s bailout. But he was at
Pebble Beach in 2010 (“listening through a crack in the door,”
Whitten wrote in Golf Digest) when the USGA awarded the U.S. Open to
Erin Hills, and the USGA has supplied Lang with tickets this week,
treating him as a guest.
“Without Bob, we would not be standing here,” Fry said. “That’s the
truth. He had the vision. He’s an incredibly passionate person. That
turned to obsession, and he couldn’t control himself. He had to sell
it. And I consider Bob a friend. I feel bad for him in many ways,
but we’re all responsible for our own situations.”
EXTERNAL LINK: Bob Lang says he spent $26 million to build Erin
Hills, but has little left (Wall Street Journal; Subscription