A Journey's End
Wisconsin's Erin Hills could well land the 2017 U.S. Open, but for the man who nearly went broke pursuing that prize, the quest is over
Bob Lang, who owned Erin Hills GC in Erin, Wis., remembers the morning. It was the Monday after the 2007 U.S. Senior Open at nearby Whistling Straits, a day after Brad Bryant swiped a major from Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. Lang was standing in front of an old barn that he had converted into a cart shed, surrounded by rolling hills, dirt roads and flatbed trucks. Located 25 miles northwest of Milwaukee, Erin is home to more dairy cows than people. Yet here came the USGA's executive committee, tearing down the driveway to the latest and greatest in public golf in a caravan of Lexus courtesy cars.
"There were nine or 10 of them," recalls Lang. "I remember thinking, 'This is the real deal.' "
The USGA had sparked the buzz about Erin Hills by awarding the course the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links before it even opened in 2006. Since USGA officials were in the area for the U.S. Senior Open, they had arranged a site visit. The blue coats wanted another peek at their latest crush.
Lang's agenda that day -- and for many days to come -- was simple. He was trying to pull a Brad Bryant himself and take a major from golf's big names. Lang seemed to have everything in order at Erin Hills in 2007, and there were no obvious indications he couldn't do it. As he tried to showcase his course to the powers on the ground, the powers above were threatening.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I hope it doesn't rain,' " says Lang. "That was one of the most nervous times of my life."
The group played the front nine before the skies opened, sending everyone in for lunch. The rain ceased, but because the USGA folks had planes to catch, there wasn't enough time to play the back nine. Lang convinced his guests to at least see the back nine. Instead of carts, they drove their fancy cars.
Despite the abbreviated round, the USGA's infatuation became more like genuine love that day. A year after the visit, the organization announced Lang's creation would host the 2011 U.S. Amateur. It was quite an accomplishment for a relatively new course. Lang appreciated it, but he was thinking bigger. "To host the Women's Amateur Publinks was exhilarating," says Lang, who first contemplated the course 11 years ago. "To be awarded the U.S. Amateur was an honor. But my goal in life is the Open."
Last year, however, only months before the USGA was to decide if Erin Hills would get that coveted Open in 2017, Lang faced the prospect of selling his creation. His goal of snagging the championship had become a passion, but his passion morphed into an obsession.
"For Bob Lang," says USGA executive director David Fay, "Erin Hills hosting an Open became a bad obsession."
Lang, 65, likes to say, "golf is a journey." He says it a lot. He tags his e-mail with the phrase. He uses the line so often those who know Lang tend to quote him. "As Bob says, 'Golf is a journey.' "
Lang admits, though, he isn't a golfer. He played once in 2009, with his daughter at Erin Hills, and says, "I shot well over 100."
Born and raised in Danville, Ill., with a brother and a sister, Lang likes to tell friends and interviewers he is from "the other side of the tracks." When anxious, he speaks in incomplete sentences, can't sit still and runs his hands through his rust-colored hair during pauses in a conversation. Lang is a salesman, but when times are tough he can't sell calm and in control.
Lang graduated from Northern Illinois in 1967. After college he sold encyclopedias and hearing aids, became a teacher, then taught himself how to be a builder and a businessman. In 1975 he began buying and renovating properties in Delafield, Wis. He built and restored more than 200 houses, some restaurants and a movie theater. He also started a calendar company. After only seven years, he was a wealthy man. "I made a fortune," he says.
Fueled by his big imagination, a bank that would back him and a history of pulling off deals, Lang proved a bold entrepreneur. In 1997 a neighbor told Lang about a piece of property for sale in Erin, only 15 miles from Delafield. To buy it, Lang needed to raise $2.5 million. He remembers paying a non-refundable $100,000 fee to get a 90-day extension in order to get financing. Lang, being Lang, beat the deadline.
Lang's wife of 43 years, Susanne, offered her support and a piece of advice: "She told me," he recalls, " 'Just don't put everything we have into a golf course.' "
In the years to come, Lang would prove to have selective hearing. He bought more land next to the original plot. Eventually he would buy nine parcels totaling 650 acres. Now what? For a guy who's not a golfer, the game would give Lang quite a journey.
Lang didn't see a better use for his property than a low-key course for locals, his original vision just nine holes. Tom Doak, in the mid-1990s before he was the renowned Tom Doak (and before Lang owned the land), was asked to make some preliminary plans for a course. But in 2000 Lang met architect Mike Hurdzan, and they hit it off.
Hurdzan and Lang are the same age, but Hurdzan was a Green Beret in Vietnam while Lang stayed home and worked as a teacher. "He went to 'Nam, and I didn't," says Lang. "I respected that. I wanted to give him a piece of property that he could use to make a name for himself."
Hurdzan and design partner Dana Fry have a combined 70 years of experience. They've built more than 350 courses worldwide -- among the most recognizable are Bully Pulpit in North Dakota and Naples National in Florida. Hurdzan added a third person to the design team: Ron Whitten, the experienced golf course architecture editor at Golf Digest and Golf World. Whitten had dabbled in design, and he and Hurdzan, longtime friends with a mutual respect, had often discussed working on a project together. Given the original plan and Whitten's views as a "purist," Hurdzan thought it would be a good fit.
By 2004 a rough course layout was done. "We wanted to build a nice, inexpensive, lay-of-the-land style course," says Hurdzan. Because the land was perfect for a links-style layout, the designers moved only a few feet of dirt for the original set of greens.
But did Lang really want to build a course? It turns out he wasn't sure until he met Mike Davis. A veteran USGA staffer, who in 2005 would become the governing body's senior director of rules and competitions, Davis was Tom Meeks' deputy in 2004 when Lang traveled to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills GC to meet him and encourage a visit to his Wisconsin property.
Even before Lang's invitation, though, Davis was aware of Erin Hills. "Ron Whitten, years and years ago, before it was even a golf course, sent me a note saying that he had found a perfect piece of property for a U.S. Open," says Davis. Not long after the '04 Open, Davis traveled to Wisconsin for the first of nearly 20 visits to Erin Hills. "I remember thinking, part way through the walk of the course -- and definitely after we were done -- 'Ron wasn't kidding,' " Davis says.
Lang stumbled into what he thought was a beautiful piece of property with too many slopes and valleys for grazing dairy cattle. Davis saw those same undulations as a natural theater in which to play and watch golf.
"From a championship standpoint," he says, "Erin Hills is truly one of the most fabulous sites I've ever seen. What is really interesting about it, one of the things that grabs you right from the get-go, is it has a really neat routing for championship golf that allows a lot of room between holes. To get operational things and viewing areas, you could really utilize the dunes. When I was driving out there from the Milwaukee airport, through this [flat] farmland, I was thinking to myself: 'How can there be this type of property out here?' But then you get closer and you start to see a little more movement to the land. And then, all of a sudden, I thought, 'Wow, this looks like Shinnecock on steroids.' "