This charming backyard course in rural Minnesota is as pure as golf gets

October 25, 2019
A view of Oak Meadow in New Prague, Minn., which to so many people is much more than a backyard golf course.

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The best golf club in America isn’t Cypress Point or Augusta National. It’s in a backyard in rural Minnesota, and it’s called Oak Meadow Golf Club. There is no membership application process at Oak Meadow, no initiation fee, annual dues, or food and beverage minimums. To book a tee time, you just need to know a guy.

In 2006, my uncle, Ron Geiger, and his family built a house on 10 acres of pasture land on the outskirts of New Prague, Minn., about 50 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. A retired stockbroker and 18-handicapper, Ron was visiting the empty lot one day when a thought occurred to him.

“There was a butterfly garden with a big retaining wall,” he says, “and I just thought, ‘This would be a cool tee box.’ It just went from there.”

Employing some of the equipment used to build his house, Ron constructed 10 tee boxes around the perimeter of the property that play to three different greens. For assistance with the course routing, he enlisted the help of Kurt Ruehling, the head pro at New Prague Golf Club. Soon enough, Ron had 12 holes ranging from 74 to 227 yards and a par of 36. Oak Meadow was born.

A look at one of the greens at Oak Meadow.
Scott Dickey/8710 Photography

Throughout the years, the conditioning of the course has gradually improved, and the greens now roll just as fast and smooth as any of putting surfaces at courses in the surrounding area. Since its opening, many players have tired to bring Oak Meadow to its knees; the course record remains four-under 32.

Every fall, Ron hosts the Oak Meadow Club Championship, a gathering of three dozen friends and family united by a shared love of golf. The attendees’ skill level varies widely, from better-than-scratch to 30-plus. They are all put into either the championship flight or the first flight, and after two loops around Oak Meadow, prizes are awarded to the top-three finishers in each division.

Players show up on the first tee on tournament Saturday greeted by a spectacular display of sticky caramel rolls, warm muffins and hot coffee laid out by Ron’s wife, Lori. (Baileys is also on offer.) On-course coolers are stocked with beer and water.

Oak Meadow is in New Prague, Minn., about 50 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
Scott Dickey/8710 Photography

There are a number of tournaments-within-the tournament, with prizes awarded for most birdies, longest putt on each green, and the low score on the front six and back six. After all the rounds are completed, two different shootouts take place, which give every player something else to compete for, no matter how bad their tournament rounds went.

Every competitor kicks in $30 at the start of the tournament, although Ron refuses to take any money for himself. Every dollar is given back to the players in some way.

The golf played in the tournament ranges from dazzling to distressing. Nobody takes their scores too seriously, but late in the day, the rollicking atmosphere turns sober. One reason for the heightened tension is what awaits the winner: a drink from a bottle of 21-year-old Balvenie single-malt scotch. It’s only opened once a year. Twelve men have walked on the moon, but only six men have tasted that scotch.

Nick Pexa, the husband of Ron’s daughter, Rachel, posted an even-par 72 to win this year’s event and claim his fourth Oak Meadow club championship. Pexa is a top-flight amateur who has won a number of club championships at “real” courses, and once again he served as a reminder to the field that at Oak Meadow the cream rises to the top.

The party at Oak Meadow doesn't stop when the golf is over.
Scott Dickey/8710 Photography

After play concludes, wives and children show up, and Ron fires up his custom-made stone pizza oven and makes nearly 30 pies. Each year, without fail, the fastest to go are Ron’s locally famous gorgonzola-and-grape slices.

“It’s a really unique thing, and what makes it so unique is Ron and Lori,” says my dad, Joe. “They’re giving, thoughtful and classy, and it all goes on display in that one day.”

The golf course is terrific in a vacuum, but what really adds to its charm is the thread that runs through every square inch of the property: family. The first superintendent of Oak Meadow was Ron’s oldest son, Danny. He passed the title to his younger brother, Bobby, who passed it to my younger brother, Henry. My grandpa, LeRoy Geiger, helps with different course maintenance duties, and Lori tends to the flowers that beautify the course.

And then there is my uncle Ron. It’s easy to imagine someone who has a golf course in his backyard being swollen with self-importance, but he’s one of the most giving and generous persons I know. All Oak Meadow has ever been to him is something to share with others.

Their own scoreboard? Check.
Scott Dickey/8710 Photography

Everyone who plays Oak Meadow walks away with a memory. Having played the course dozens of times, I have a treasure trove to choose from, but one sticks out above all others. My dad took home the inaugural Oak Meadow Club Championship back in 2007, but I remember 2011 much more clearly for one simple reason: I was looping for him that day. From the first tee to the final green, 13-year-old me lived and died on his every shot.

During the first round, on the 227-yard 7th hole, my dad pulled his tee shot out of bounds. I was devastated because I thought our chances were ruined. Barely reacting, my dad re-teed and summoned a high cut that landed on the front of the green and settled less than six inches from the cup. He looked at me, smiled, and handed me the club without a word. I’ve never seen a better shot, and my dad went on to win his second Oak Meadow title.

We all love to argue about the merits of different courses and debate Top 100 lists, but really golf courses are just an excuse for friends and family to come together and enjoy each other’s company. Our greatest moments on the course usually have more to do with whom we are playing than where. In that sense, I can’t imagine a better course in the world than Oak Meadow, our family’s little 10-acre slice of golf heaven.

Michael Geiger is a junior marketing major at the University of Minnesota. He lives in New Prague, Minn.