A dicey US Open topic: Erin Hills founder Bob Lang

Tribune News Service

June 13, 2017

A lone oak tree stands between the 15th and 16 holes during the U.S. Open golf tournament.
Photo by John Ehlke/Daily News

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 really happened.

“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 always made.”

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 12.
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 Required)