Known to favor traditional venues, the staid USGA this week is bringing the U.S. Open to Erin Hills, an unproven course 35 minutes northwest of Milwaukee. Wisconsin's first U.S. Open is the result of a plot more suitable to pulp fiction than "Golf Digest."
One key figure in the rise of Erin Hills is in jail for killing his wife. The most important figure in the course's creation destroyed his businesses and personal wealth before selling the property. He, too, is linked with a tragic death.
"The most remarkable aspect to me is that you had this piece of land that so many people wanted, and Bob Lang wound up getting it," said Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Gary D'Amato. "Bob had this crazy dream to bring the Open to Wisconsin. He achieved the dream but fell short of the finish line himself."
D'Amato has produced a remarkable seven-part series on Erin Hills, as well as a coffee-table book. His research took him to prison to visit Steve Trattner, a former computer programmer who became obsessed with the idea of operating a golf course.
In 1999, Trattner wanted to buy the stunning land that would become Erin Hills but lacked investors. He related his frustration to a neighbor on a walk near his house. The neighbor, Bob Chich, recommended that Trattner call Lang, who owned greeting card and development businesses.
Lang fell in love with the property, which features natural swales and ridges ideal for dramatic golf architecture. Lang bought the property and a couple of nearby land parcels for about $3 million in 2001, intending to build a public golf course that could attract the U.S. Open.
Most of Lang's associates thought he was crazy, but he had attended the 2000 Open at Pebble Beach and thought that Erin Hills would be a far superior course.
In 2003, Lang sold his businesses so he could own the land debt-free. In 2004, current Erin Hills U.S. Open Chairman Jim Reinhart introduced Lang to USGA executive Mike Davis, who visited Erin Hills and told Lang it was one of the best pieces of property he'd seen.
That prompted Lang to take out loans to begin construction. He also bought six more parcels of land. He had spent $8 million, but in 2005 the USGA awarded Erin Hills the 2008 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links. No one could remember the USGA ever before giving a championship to a course that had not yet opened.
In 2006, the course opened. In January of that year, Trattner was charged with strangling his wife after she asked for a divorce. He is serving a 35-year term.
When Erin Hills opened, the greens fee was $150, the course was hard to find and the fairways were thin. Lang had bought many of the houses visible from the course to remove them, considering them eyesores. He built an Irish manor of a clubhouse, and a nearby hotel.
Lang had gotten to know key USGA figures, who were impressed with the course's potential. The organization awarded Erin Hills the 2011 U.S. Amateur, while admitting that the Amateur was always a precursor to an Open.
After the Public Links, the USGA suggested a few improvements that might have cost $200,000. Lang borrowed another $2.7 million. In 2009, after borrowing another $2 million, Lang realized he had reached his financial breaking point.
Reinhart tried to help him find investors and pushed hard to bring in Andy Ziegler, his friend from the Milwaukee Country Club.
Ziegler had made it big with his international investing firm. He wasn't impressed with the condition of the course. He and Lang couldn't make a deal, and Ziegler told Reinhart several times he wasn't interested, but the idea of a U.S. Open intrigued.
Reinhart had set up a meeting between Ziegler and the USGA bosses at the U.S. Amateur in Tulsa in 2009. Ziegler canceled, then at the last moment decided to attend.
Reinhart started the meeting by talking about Lang's financial problems and saying the USGA would have to relocate the U.S. Amateur. When the USGA officials began raving about Erin Hills' potential as a U.S. Open course, Ziegler got excited.
Ziegler bought the course from Lang for $10 million. Lang also signed a 10-year contract as a course consultant that includes a nondisclosure agreement. The title — "consultant" — is merely honorary.
Lang went to Pebble Beach for the 2010 U.S. Open, where the USGA announced that Erin Hills would get the 2017 U.S. Open, but was not invited to the news conference.
Ziegler would spend millions on yet another renovation. Today, Erin Hills is pristine and beautiful, with fescue lining the fairways, and has been called "Shinnecock Hills on steroids."
Lang put ownership of the course in a trust for his three children, essentially costing them their inheritance. In 2016, Lang's only son, Andy, was found dead on a park bench in Manhattan. He was 47. The family has said he died of natural causes.
This week, Lang will attend the U.S. Open he made possible on the land that he once owned. Not as an owner, or an official, but as a fan.
Several sources provided the information for this column, most notably Gary D'Amato's reporting for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org