HUBERTUS, Wis. – From his workplace atop Holy Hill in central Wisconsin, Father Cyril Guise has an unusual view of Erin Hills. It’s a vantage point that also affords him a personal perspective on Bob Lang, the founder and original owner of the course that is home to the 2017 U.S. Open.
Father Cyril is only an occasional golfer. He’s played Erin Hills “maybe 10 or 12 times,” he says, and was never better than a 17-handicapper. With his head of gray hair and his black-rimmed spectacles, he looks younger than his 85 years. When he plays golf, he changes out of his standard attire of a full-length brown frock. Most of his time is spent attending to formal duties in the Order of Carmelites Discalced. He was ordained in 1959, and since 1993 his home and office have been here at Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians.
Half a million visitors come here annually from all over the world to pay their respects and tour the basilica that, at 1,600 feet above sea level, towers over the region.
Two miles to the west, the open ground of Erin Hills is clearly visible from a walkway leading to Holy Hill’s offices. By way of reverse view, from the golf course the basilica provides a looming presence. As per Lang’s intent, the tee shot on the long par-5 18th hole lines up right at the basilica.
Father Cyril first saw Erin Hills in 2001, before it was even a golf course. Lang, a devout Catholic and former altar boy, took him around in a pickup truck and showed him the 657 acres of unfarmed woodland and open pasture that would be his dream course.
“He had a vision that day,” Father Cyril said. “He’s almost a mystic in that he saw what it could become. He was really excited and he communicated that excitement. It was fascinating to meet someone with that kind of vision. And then he made it a reality.”
By nature and by a binding agreement, Lang is something of an elusive man. He’s also the person arguably most responsible for this year’s U.S. Open setting up at Erin Hills on June 15-18. It was Lang, after all, who as a non-golfing businessman with no more experience in the game than youthful days spent caddying in his hometown of Danville, Ill., who managed to transform a sprawling parcel dotted with oak stands, ponds and wetlands into a world-class course and U.S. Open venue.
It’s an amazing tale. But Lang won’t be telling it. He’s prevented by a non-disclosure agreement that was tied to the sale of the course in 2010 to new owner Andy Ziegler.
Lang won’t discuss his involvement in Erin Hills or how he ran out of money and needed someone to bail him out. But that doesn’t prevent a writer from delving back into decade-old conversations with Lang on the site of Erin Hills from the days he ran the place and would buttonhole every writer and would-be critic. A 20-minute chat with Lang just before golf was likely to turn into a two-hour discourse about the place and a scramble to find a different tee time.
Lang cared a lot about the place. Too much, in fact. He constantly tinkered with holes, convinced they needed to be made hard, agreeing to add more back tees until they ended up totaling over 8,000 yards. He occasionally added bunkers of his own that the design team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten had not intended.
“He was such a perfectionist,” Hurdzan said. “Very passionate guy, very honest, sincere. The whole Boy Scout thing: loyal, brave, but maybe not thrifty.”
Hurdzan recalls the example of the fourth green, originally a punchbowl.
“As usual, we gave him options. There was a drainage issue with what we had,” Hurdzan said. “We told him that for $500 we could put a drainage pipe in it that would solve the problem. Or we could rebuild the green for $50,000. Bob didn’t like the green and wanted it moved up the hill to make the hole harder. That was the $50,000 choice. So we moved it.”
Officially, Lang will be a guest of the U.S. Golf Association all week, supplied with any tickets he’ll need though with no official role to play and no scheduled functions to attend.
Lang didn’t exactly come out of nowhere when he created Erin Hills. He was already a spectacularly successful business entrepreneur, having built a company that went from specialty calendars to a major national supplier of decorative Americana folk art, furnishings and greeting cards.
In the process, he transformed the town of Delafield, Wis. (pop. 7,000), 16 miles south of Erin Hills, through the reconstruction of what had been a decaying downtown three decades ago. Eventually the Lang Co. built and owned 19 buildings, including office space, restaurants, shops and the elegant Delafield Hotel. They eventually were sold to Hendricks Commercial Properties in 2007-08, the year before Lang divested of Erin Hills.
The last of Lang’s 300 employees is his long-time secretary and office manager, Suzanne Schroeder. She presides over a small but distinguished office in Delafield furnished with the kind of American traditional décor on which Lang built his fortune. Among the few remaining holdings – housed in Gettysburg, Pa. – is the country’s finest private collections of Abraham Lincoln portrait paintings.
From behind her circa-1920s wooden desk, Schroeder shows a visitor a series of composition books filled in impeccable long hand with a black Sharpie and transcribed by Schroeder. It’s the text of a novel Lang wrote and self-published two years ago, “The Tarnished Collar.”
The ambitious, sprawling, 881-page work of fiction tells a story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church of late-1950s rural Indiana. Lang did no research for the book. He simply immersed himself into each of the characters, finding a thread of identification with each one in some way. For Schroeder, Lang’s commitment to the book was like everything else he’s undertaken.
“When he’s determined to do something, he gets it on his mind and he’s focused,” she said.
Lang reiterates, “I wasn’t sexually abused.” But he felt compelled to write it to exercise some sort of unspecified urge to pursue what he refers to as a sense of justice. The book is filled with details of Catholic liturgy and the lives of the clerisy.
“He came to me with ideas about the book,” Father Cyril says. “You could say he was looking for approval – to make sure everything in it was Kosher.”
These days Lang spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C. with his wife of 50 years, Susanne, their two grown daughters and their two grandchildren. The togetherness they share away from Wisconsin brings much solace. Tragedy far beyond anything to do with business or golf struck the Langs last August when their eldest, Andy, died suddenly in New York City at the age of 47.
There’s more unresolved sadness on Lang’s mind, as well. Back in 2006, his confidant in Erin Hills and project manager, Steve Trattner, became enraged when his wife asked for divorce and strangled her. He pled guilty to a charge of reckless homicide. Trattner is imprisoned in Waupun (Wis.) Correctional Institution, one-third through a 35-year sentence. Lang says Trattner “did not get his day in court” and he is “seeking justice for Trattner” through support lf him, though no formal appeal is pending.
Clearly, there’s a lot on Lang’s mind. Fifteen years ago it was all about getting a U.S. Open. Now it’s all about moving on. Just like the characters in Lang’s novel.
(Note: This story appeared in the June 2017 issue of Golfweek.)