Many of you may remember Paul Harvey, the syndicated storyteller gracing the radio airwaves of yesteryear. Whenever I caught Mr. Harvey on my dial I perked up my ears, ready for the informal history lesson that was to follow. His distinctive voice grabbed me as he eventually would conclude with his famous signature, “and now you know the rest of the story”. Usually the person he spoke about was well known but Paul would add some wrinkle that jogged your memory causing you to think — I didn’t know that! His delivery flowed like homemade gravy over a hot turkey sandwich. Once you heard his voice, you couldn’t change stations.
I always loved the story behind the story, the ones journalists often overlook. In tribute to Mr. Harvey, I’d like to pen my own “and now you know….”. It involves a dream tarnished by “too many cooks in the kitchen”. It is an in-depth look at a forgotten man who simply wanted to bring a natural golf experience to others – Bob Lang.
Bob made his fortune in Waukesha County through a number of different businesses ranging from commercial real estate to greeting cards and candles as well as a graphics company. In 2004 he embarked on a twenty-three million dollar project to redevelop a majority of downtown Delafield, WI by adding office and retail space plus an upscale lodging property. A few years later several acres of land became available north of Delafield on which a golf course would be constructed. Three men, renowned architect Dr. Michael Hurdzan, his assistant Dana Fry, and Golf Digest Architectural Editor Ron Whitten were brought in to sculpt the layout. However it quickly became apparent there simply were too many differing ideas on what the course should be. Bob footed the bill for all their ideas, a process that ultimately derailed his dream.
I believe what began as an attempt to deliver a quality, affordable golf experience developed into a grandiose scheme to bring competitions of the United States Golf Association to Wisconsin. In the process Bob got run over by a Brinks truck.
At the time Erin Hills was awarded the USGA Mens Amateur in 2008, Milwaukee resident and former USGA Vice President Jim Reinhart knew the Midwest needed a bona fide US Open site. Chicago had failed in the USGA’s eyes with Olympia Fields Country Club hosting the 2003 event. Herb Kohler’s alliance with the PGA of America at Whistling Straits and the USGA at Blackwolf Run proved an interesting balancing act, but it seemed unlikely after the USGA Women’s Open in 2012 the USGA would knock on Herb’s doorstep again. Sensing an opening, Reinhart, Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten doggedly pursued a USGA Open bid for Erin Hills, perhaps for their own interests.
It’s apparent the reasons for such a pursuit. Golf course construction projects in this country have been on a steady decline. With Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten being awarded the opportunity to host a major championship, it certainly would bolster their resume. Plus Ron Whitten always wanted to be a golf course architect but his timing couldn’t have been worse. He grew up in an architectural age featuring prominent names like Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, plus newcomers Tom Weiskopf and Ben Crenshaw. The field simply was too crowded to break into by hanging a shingle on the back of a Cat D8 bulldozer. Whitten instead had to settle for transcribing his thoughts on the pages of Golf Digest rather than digging in the dirt
Finally, Jim Reinhart wanted to be the known as the man responsible for bringing the USGA’s flagship event to Wisconsin. He capitalized on the opportunity and delivered. His legacy within USGA had been secured. Naturally the USGA appointed him as the General Chairman for the event. In the end the fight for “King of Erin Hills” came down to four men and their own personal agendas. Mission accomplished; Wisconsin would host the United States Golf Association’s premier event in 2017. But what about Bob?
While it’s obvious Bob did not originally intend for his course to grow into a financial liability or even the site of a national championship, the economic downturn in 2008 threatened his ability to keep the property. Add the input from the four amigos regarding course renovations and upgrades, these costly decisions ultimately forced a sale of Erin Hills to Andy Ziegler, co-founder of Artisan Partners LLC, a Milwaukee based investment company. Reinhart and Ziegler were acquaintances. You can interpret that relationship the way you want. It has the appearance of a financial better-ball team ganging up on one player. Bob just wanted a course to welcome golfers of all abilities in a unique natural setting with the only major events involving tales spun at the end of a round over a few pints of Guinness. His vision was one of a “journey” as he called it. Sadly that journey came to an unfortunate end.
One of the puzzling aspects of this financial process is why the USGA didn’t offer to fund any of the renovations Lang was encouraged to do in order to attract a championship. It was well documented the USGA contributed heartily to the renovations at Bethpage Black in order to conduct their first truly “public course” Open. Such a gesture most likely would have allowed Lang to maintain ownership of his course. But is this what Reinhart and the USGA wanted? In the end it didn’t appear that way.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Bob Lang as well as Andy Ziegler during visits to Erin Hills. The first day I met Bob he was moving dirt with a shovel near the new eighth tee. Years ago I met Andy Ziegler on the patio behind the clubhouse as he, the Director of Golf and another companion were sharing a drink. The contrast in personalities of these two men couldn’t be more different. Bob wanted to shape things through his hands. Andy looked like a man preferring to delegate through the use of his pockets.
I’ve heard it said when it comes to bringing championship golf to Wisconsin, Herb Kohler was a visionary. Likewise I’m almost sure Andy Ziegler will receive similar accolades when the US Open arrives at Erin Hills in 2017. Jim Reinhart also will share a significant portion of the spotlight. Believe what you want, but the visionary responsible for Erin Hills was Bob Lang. His initial efforts painted the canvass that will host this championship.
It’s easy to possess vision when you have a company manufacturing toilets and generators or perhaps an investment firm. I don’t know how deep Mr. Ziegler’s pockets are but they appear substantial. He made a commitment of maintaining the heritage of Erin Hills and brought it to the national stage. Several upgrades to the property have been undertaken over the last few years. Design changes have made the layout better. I commend him for his decision to assume ownership of this outstanding course. Undoubtedly he will ensure the facility offers an upscale experience with greens fees that resemble a monthly car payment. You can decide if that is a good for the game or not.
All of this begs the question what might have been if upon groundbreaking the chosen architects had been a different bunch and Jim Reinhart hadn’t used his USGA pull to push Bob into financial chaos. But as we all know, it’s easy to spend someone else’s money. Did that happen here? Certainly it did. Articles have been written depicting Lang as an overzealous owner whose only quest was to deliver a major championship to the Dairy State at any cost. I disagree. Bob was more concerned with every day golfers. The cornerstone of the original clubhouse was inscribed with the following message — “Dedicated to all golfers who share a passion for the game.” It appears he simply got in over his head trying to appease too many others. He got caught up in a US Open feeding frenzy.
A man with a shovel in his hands and a dream in his mind is what brought Erin Hills to fruition. If you attend the US Open in 2017 be sure to say thank you to Robert Lang. It’s unlikely you’ll see or recognize him should he be on the grounds. Just say it to yourself as you walk the scenic expansive beauty this man developed years ago. Even better, if you have the chance to play the course one day, realize it all came about through Bob’s efforts. You will gain the proper appreciation for his vision. It should never be forgotten. Some might say Robert Lang’s dream died. Rather, it is very much alive and always will be for those who know….. the rest of the story.