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Erin Hills' Bob Lang: The little guy who outmaneuvered Donald Trump and Herb Kohler in the U.S. Open race

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

HARTFORD, Wis. - Donald Trump must hate Bob Lang.

Erin Hills Owner Bob Lang
Erin Hills Golf Course owner Bob Lang is favored to bring a U.S. Open to Wisconsin.
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Lang's golf dreams consisted of one day owning a nine-hole golf course that his employees and friends could play. That was the extent of it. Lang didn't even get links golf, couldn't understand why people would want to play without any trees around. He readily admits he needed to be urged to take a trip to the famed Sand Hills Golf Club in nowhere Nebraska to get a grasp on the allure of links golf.

Lang met United States Golf Association bigwig Mike Davis by chance, extended an invitation he never ever expected Davis to follow up on. In preparation for that follow-up, Lang mowed his own unfinished links-style golf course with the big John Deere tractor he got a kick out of riding.

"I'm the opposite of Donald Trump," Lang says, shrugging.

Now, Lang sits at a long wood table in the appropriately dim clubhouse of Erin Hills Golf Course, the owner of a course on Wisconsin farmland that's considered a lock to host a future U.S. Open (most likely in 2017). You know, in exactly the spot The Donald and other billionaire golf course schemers are dying to be.

To be fair, I'm the one who brings up Trump. Lang doesn't have to look as far as some world headquarters in New York to see a tycoon out of his league. There's Herb Kohler, the bathroom baron, Kevin Costner-buddy who forever changed the way everyone thinks of golf in Wisconsin, up the state with accounts that make him one of the 500 richest men in America. (Heck, after the last few weeks on Wall Street, the safe bathroom man's probably moved into the Top 20.) Lang calls him "Mr. Kohler" and talks with as much reverence for what Kohler's done for Wisconsin golf as Alex Rodriguez should for what Joe DiMaggio did for Yankee mythdom.

Still, Bob Lang figures to get a U.S. Open before "Mr. Kohler," too. Erin Hills is written in at least some seriously heavy pencil for that 2017 Open, while Kohler's Whistling Straits settles for two more PGA Championships and the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches.

"The only thing that Donald Trump, Mr. Kohler and myself have in common is that, A) we all own golf courses, and, B) we all have a goal to host a U.S. Open," Lang says.

You're certainly not going to find Donald Trump almost blending into the deep, dark wood of one of his clubhouses, waiting to ask any average golfer who strolls through what he thinks of the course while thanking him for coming ... with most of those golfers having no idea who the inquisitive guy in the nylon jacket is.

"I thought he was the general manager, maybe a customer service representative," Illinois visitor James Jercich says.

No, just the guy who signs all the checks and makes the final decisions on an unlikely golf course fast-tracked for greatness.

Lang's anonymity has served him well, though. In some ways, it gives him a huge edge over The Donald in dealing with the USGA. Under David Fay, the bow tie of the people, the USGA is trying to give the impression it's moving away from elitist, closed, private clubs. At least New Age elitist clubs (old blue blood standbys like the Olympic Club and Oakmont Country Club are still always welcome).

And nothing screams new money power more than Donald Trump. He doesn't apologize for it, either. It's a big part of being Trump, one of the most successful branding jobs in business history.

The USGA is more comfortable with the near-anonymous owner who purposefully makes Erin Hills' entranceway sign a mere 24-inches wide (the better for everyone to drive right past the first time) than the TV tycoon who orders his signs bigger than Madison Square Garden's marquee and his waterfalls larger yet.

What's one of the first things Trump did when he bought a failing golf club in the rich man's enclave of Colt's Neck, N.J., for $28 million? He ordered that the driveway needed to be immediately enlarged, to give the place that larger-than-life Trump style of entrance.

It turns out that doesn't play so well under the backdrop of today's sky-is-falling economic headlines. Oh, the USGA still has tons of crazy cash, too. You're not supposed to flaunt it, though.

Is it ridiculous to suggest that Trump will not get a U.S. Open because his signs are too large? Absolutely. But that doesn't make it any less true. It's hard to argue that if Trump National Golf Club was owned by somebody besides Trump, it wouldn't have received more serious consideration for a major tournament.

Somebody like, say, a former greetings card and calendar company owner who brings about as much bluster as your average kindergarten teacher.

"It's not about me," Lang argues. "It's about Erin Hills. I'm old enough that I don't need the ego boost."

It's hard not to root for and relate to Bob Lang (even if he really does have way more money than 99 percent of us ever will). This is son of a Teamster truck driver, a guy who started out his working life as a school teacher. Lang spent three years trying to get through to junior high schoolers - while coaching the eighth grade football team - before realizing he wanted to own and build things. (Lang built and owned much of Delafield, an entire town he remade into a boutique area before selling much of it off).

Now that Lang is into golf, he's completely into it. He's at Erin Hills almost every day it's open - even though he still doesn't play much golf at all.

When Lang happened to meet Mike Davis for "two minutes" at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, he didn't think anything would come of it. When Davis called him a few months later and said he'd be in the area and would like to check out this Erin Hills course Lang had told him about, the greetings card guy found himself hopping on his John Deere to see what he could do with a track that was still very much in the vision stage.

"I mowed the fairways down to rough height," Lang says. "And I put these old flags in."

Davis ended up walking the genesis of the golf course for four hours and 15 minutes with Lang that day. "He told me it was a real nice piece of land," Lang recalls. "But that, 'We're conservative at the USGA. We need to see a golf course first.'"

Erin Hills opened within two years. Now Bob Lang is moving ahead of Trump and Kohler in the USGA line.

"It's so surreal," Lang says, "that sometimes I can't figure it out."

You can surely bet The Donald can't either. But truth is sometimes the guy who maneuvers best doesn't even realize he's in a chess match.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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