Golf & Business

Encountering Rugged Terrain And Difficult Decisions On The Golf Course And In The Office

Bob Lang learned, like other entrepreneurs, that converting a dream into reality can be arduous. His dream is the story of the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, which began with rugged terrain and a dream of bringing professional golf to Wisconsin.
By Vincent Pane

Erin Hills is the fruition of one man's determination to bring U.S. championship golf to Wisconsin. Bob Lang was 72 years old, wealthy as a result of building a successful greeting card and calendar publishing company, and making successful real estate investments. That fortune dwindled after buying a former cattle farm and building a golf course on it.

It was not just any golf course though. The rugged landscape made an improbable spot for a golf course, and even if the course was built, the U.S.G.A. was unlikely to agree to holding the U.S. Open at a new public golf course in a location nowhere near … well … much of anything.

As an entrepreneur, Lang experienced the typical travails of an entrepreneur with a dream – doubt, a need for capital, risks that could collapse the entire effort, and public criticism.

Passion To Succeed Can Turn Into An Obsession
What makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur? It seems like a simple question, but in reality it is a very complex one.

Lang obtained more than one loan, invested in building and then expanding the course to attract professional golf tournaments, and overpaid for all the houses a golfer could see from the course so he could tear them down or move them. He had to sell the course because he overextended himself financially. Andy and Carlene Ziegler – well known in Wisconsin as the co-founders of Artisan Partners Holdings, a global investment management firm – purchased the golf course. The course sold for $10 million, and Lang had invested $26 million. Lang was insolvent. The day the course sold, the U.S.G.A. voted to hold the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

This is a sad story of an entrepreneur who lost everything because of a stubborn dream. He had sold his successful printing company and his commercial real estate holding company, and gone deep in debt. He ended up with no golf course. What is particularly interesting about this story is that Lang admits he let a passionate idea become an obsession, and that his ideas tended to outgrow his finances.

However, Lang did not see an empty cow field when he first started this venture. He saw a beautiful and challenging golf course. Interestingly, it would be reasonable to assume he was an avid golfer, but he was not. The first grain of an idea arose out of a desire to build a local 9-hole golf course for his more than 300 employees.

The Story Now Continues
Lang is a true entrepreneur. He made some poor decisions, over the objections of people like the architects of the golf course, but the dream of holding the U.S. Open never faded. Sure, he wishes he still owned Erin Hills. He had put it in trust for his three children. Sure, he should not have risked his fortune to the point of losing it all.

However, the new course is working its magic. For example, Steve Stricker from Wisconsin was denied a spot in the U.S. Open because the U.S.G.A. denied his request for a special exemption. So he promptly went out and won a 36-hole sectional qualifier. Stricker has earned a reputation as a Wisconser who works hard and never gives up, even when in a career slump. Playing in the first U.S. Open held in Wisconsin was important to him and to his supporters.

The story of the golf course built in an improbable place on rugged terrain leads to the question: What makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur? Is it a willingness to take unreasonable risks or to ignore what seems like sound advice from people in the entrepreneur's network in order to keep a dream alive? Is it simple perseverance?

After all, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said, "Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is practical." Sounds a bit like Lang took this advice.

Balancing Dreams and Reality
Being an entrepreneur is challenging because it requires a willingness to assume some level of risk. It is when something becomes an obsession that consumes everything else, like relationships and finances, that entrepreneurship fails.

Entrepreneurs frequently obsess with success, working hard to start and build a business. Lang would take his tractor to the cow pasture and clear brush for several hours a day on weekends. While doing so, he dreamed of what the land would become and the sought after tournament. Entrepreneurs can easily get themselves into trouble by focusing only on the dream and not the realities of things like cash flow. Lack of capital is one of the main reasons startups fail.

Entrepreneurs are described as creative, self-starters, determined, open-minded, and confident. However, these qualities are not enough. A Gallup survey of 1,000 entrepreneurs in 2014 found that successful entrepreneurs also make decisions based on the potential to turn a profit, are knowledge-seekers, and have good instincts concerning risk-taking (read the full discussion in the book "Entrepreneurial Strengthsfinder" by Jim Clifton and Sangeeta Eharadwaj Badal).

Lang let an obsession overcome his good business sense. He squelched the instincts and ignored the advice of people who understood the financial fiasco Lang was creating.

Remain Grounded in Solid Business Principles
What makes the Lang story particularly interesting and ironic is that the 2017 U.S. Open was very successful, but there would be no rugged terrain golf course if not for one man's obsession.

Balancing the dream with reality is probably the toughest challenge every entrepreneur faces, but it is one of the most important ones to overcome. Unless the entrepreneur remains grounded in the realities of running a business, the course may get too tough to play.

There are lots of good business ideas that never see daylight because dreamers were not entrepreneurs, and plenty of great businesses that fail because entrepreneurs let the dreams become blinders to the rugged terrain.