Great vision led to Wisconsin golf championships

    Back in 2005, I took a ride in Bob Lang’s Jeep. Lang was building a golf course in the Town of Erin, about 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee and just west of Holy Hill.

    Lang drove me, our publication’s art director and a photographer in his Jeep up and down the hills of the undulating Kettle Moraine landscape of the 650-acre site, where he was building the golf course that would open in 2006 as Erin Hills.

    During our visit, Lang revealed his ultimate dream for the golf course, which I reported in this cover story.
    "I want to build the most natural, traditional, challenging championship links-style golf course as possible," Lang said in that interview. "I want to build achampionship golf course. I want to have the excitement of different events. What I want is the opportunity to try to earn the U.S. Open. They say golf is a journey. Chasing the U.S. Open is my journey. I might fail, but I’m going to give it all I can."

    Lang’s vision for Erin Hills came true Wednesday, when the United States Golf Association awarded the 2017 U.S. Open to Erin Hills.

    "Erin Hills boasts one of the greatest natural inland sites for a golf course that I have ever seen," said Mike Davis, USGA senior director of rules and competitions.

    However, Lang could not afford to complete his vision for the site, and last year, he sold Erin Hills to Andrew Ziegler, chief executive officer and co-founder of Milwaukee-based Artisan Partners LLC.

    The U.S. Open is one of the four major tournaments of men’s professional golf, and some would say it is the biggest of the four.

    Landing the event is a major coup for southeastern Wisconsin. The USGA chose Erin Hills over Cog Hill in the Chicago area.

    The last time the U.S. Open was played in the Midwest was in 2003 at Olympia Fields, also located in the Chicago area. The tournament is usually played on the West or East Coasts.

    The USGA’s choice of Erin Hills is no doubt disappointing to Chicago area golf fans. But many of them probably will drive up to Erin Hills, and that will provide a welcome boost to Wisconsin’s economy.

    Wisconsin is becoming the Midwest capital of championship golf.

    During the next decade, six championship golf events will be held in Wisconsin: the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits located north of S heboygan; the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills; the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open
    at Blackwolf Run in Kohler; the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits; the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills; and the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

    Critics of the Erin Hills choice will say that the roads near the course will not be able to handle the U.S. Open traffic and there are not enough hotels and restaurants in the area. But the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits was a huge success with an overall attendance of more than 300,000, even though its location is also well off the interstate highway with no hotels or restaurants in immediate proximity.

    All of these major golf tournaments will help fill hotel rooms and restaurants in much of southeastern Wisconsin, and will bring even more air travelers through Mitchell International Airport, which continues to set
    passenger records.

    "Hosting the U.S. Open will be an incredible economic opportunity for Wisconsin," said Gov. Jim Doyle. "In Wisconsin, we have shown that we know how to put on a successful major golf championship, and we’ve seen the
    positive economic impacts that come with hosting one through commerce, tourism and worldwide attention. Wisconsin is quickly becoming known across the globe as a marquee tourist destination for great golf and challenging courses."

    An analysis by San Diego State University of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines showed that it brought an economic benefit of about $142 million to the San Diego area. The economic impact of the 2004 PGA Championship at
    Whistling Straits was estimated at $76 million, according to a report by Madison-based NorthStar Economics Inc.

    Much of the credit for Wisconsin’s rapid ascent to the top of the Midwest championship golf world goes to Lang and Kohler Co. chairman and CEO Herb Kohler.

    Kohler Company owns Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run. Herb Kohler had the vision to transform a former immigrant laborer residence hall into The American Club, which is the only AAA five diamond resort in the Midwest. He later decided to build the golf courses because he got tired of sending American Club guests to golf courses that were owned by someone else.

    Kohler hired renowned golf course architect Pete Dye to build his championship caliber golf courses. The Whistling Straits project was particularly challenging because Dye had to completely transform an abandoned Army base, which had numerous contamination issues, along Lake Michigan bluffs, into a beautiful golf course.

    Lang, on the other hand, had the advantage of working with a property in the Kettle Moraine that was a beautiful and interesting, hilly setting for a world-class golf course. Lang poured his heart and soul into the project.

    According to a cover story earlier this year in Golf World magazine, Lang was "obsessed" with getting a U.S. Open at Erin Hills, and that obsession almost led him to financial ruin.

    Although he failed to complete the project, it was Lang’s dream and his willingness to take a huge risk that began the process of bringing the U.S. Open to southeastern Wisconsin.

    "Bob Lang had a wonderful vision for Erin Hills," Ziegler said. "We are building on that vision through significant course renovations and are dedicated to providing a world-class test of golf for players at both the 2011 U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open."

    Wisconsin golf fans also owe a debt of gratitude to Ziegler, who is poised to complete the vision for Erin Hills that Lang started, but could not finish. Ziegler said he thinks the 2017 U.S. Open will be "the most important sporting event in the history of the state. Bud Selig might argue that the 1982 World Series was more important. But from a golfer’s perspective and in my mind, (the 2017 U.S. Open) is a very important event."

    Andrew Weiland is the managing editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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