The ball stops rolling and Ryan O’Meara shakes his head. “9.1. Not quick enough.” We shuffle off the green, stow the metal stimpmeter and tape measure in the back of our cart, and continue our morning maintenance checkup at Wildwood Golf Course.
Ryan is the Director of Golf at Wildwood, where the ninth fairway nestles up to highway 30, north of Portland, Oregon. For the course and the community that supports it, the past 30 years have necessitated a collective uphill push—a spinning orb of momentum that’s taken a dense patch of Oregon timberland and caringly shaped it into something more than just a playable local golf course. The real story of Wildwood lies in the essence of family: the glutinous and complicated elixir of sacrifice, love, rebellion, self-actualization, and legacy.
The “original Wildwood”—a scrawly nine-hole course—shut down in 1971, after the owner’s failed attempt at collecting insurance money when he lit the clubhouse on fire. For eighteen years, the course was gradually reclaimed by the wilderness: Doug firs, spruce, and blackberry bushes crept through the sprawling fairways like high school school pot smokers under the cover of darkness. The land became a question mark, and narrowly avoided becoming a Multnomah County dump. But in 1989, Bill and Kay O’Meara showed up and bought the 100-acre parcel from the willed inheritor, Shriners Hospital. The old bones of the dormant golf course were no longer visible.
Bill and his father had recently built a nine-holer, Killarney West, in nearby Hillsboro, but he wanted to branch out. Bill was determined to make his own way. At age 30, he and Kay, along with their two young kids, set up a single-wide trailer on their new property and got to work. Bill struck a deal with Shriners: he’d log the land himself, and sell the lumber to make the down payment to build the golf course.
“Those early years were tough,” Ryan says. He and his sister would pile into the truck with Kay, and they’d caravan around, selling cords of firewood to Portlanders for grocery money. “Anything extra went straight into logging the property, adding another section of drainage pipe, or buying grass seed for the greens.”
With after school hours and weekends spent running around a golf course in development, it was only natural that Ryan would learn how to operate a backhoe, excavator and other heavy machinery at just six years old. The O’Mearas were helped by other community members, too: Art Huber, who caddied at the original Wildwood, helped Bill assess the overgrown land, and Clayton Gardner performed due diligence acrobatics to secure vested water rights for the golf course.
The first nine holes opened for play in 1991, and members of the public trickled down from the surrounding hills to pay the six dollar greens fee in a clubhouse with no bathroom or credit card machine. “This is never gonna work,” was a popular impression from first-time players. But there was something in the water or the air; the golfers kept coming back. “It was never going to be a championship arena or anything, but I think it offered something different from other courses in the area,” Ryan says.
It is different. More accurately, Wildwood is just really fun. The course winds you, breathlessly, up undulating hills, down to stream-lined valleys, and through amphitheaters of proud firs. Wildwood requires you to hit good shots, but gives you the agency to choose how to play them: low, bounding runners, or crisp, lofted attempts that climb to meet the tree line are equally effective means of scraping around the golf course. There’s no dress code at Wildwood—no air of pretense, or admonishing of golfers playing music. “If you’re having fun and being kind to other people out here, then this place is perfect for you,” Ryan says. The fun is palpable here. You’re greeted with it from the shop attendants, and you can feel it emanating from groups on nearby holes. The view looking back from the 16th tee box is a postcard, or should at least be broadcast to every golfer traveling to Oregon, along with a note that reads “Here, too.”
I used to liken the construction of a golf course to sitting down at a pottery wheel: taking raw materials and shaping a masterpiece in a few sittings—even if those sittings last a couple of years. In truth, and as the O’Meara family has proven, a golf course is never finished. The beauty in the product is its impermanence, its constant flux.
This has been true for Ryan’s own involvement in the golf course as well. After ponying around on the heavy equipment as a kid, cleaning carts and working with the maintenance crew during summers in high school, and rejoining the payroll after a brief foray in managing his own golf course in neighboring St. Helens, Ryan decided to move on from Wildwood.
“There were some new directions I wanted to take the management of the golf course in, which my parents weren’t entirely comfortable with,” Ryan shares. “I saw what happened with the relationship between my dad and grandpa, and I figured it would just be the best for everyone if I worked on other things.”
For three years, Ryan went north, to a college in Washington, where he helped manage landscaping and facilities. But he got a call from his parents in the fall of 2020, deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic; business at the course had skyrocketed. Bill and Kay had yielded that Ryan’s ideas for updating and modernizing the golf course and its operations were necessary to keep up with demand, and asked him to come back home. At 34, Ryan marked his official return in November 2020 as Wildwood’s new Director of Golf.
Building—let alone maintaining—a new golf course is insurmountably consuming of money, time, brainpower, and emotional capacity. A golf course is a constantly deteriorating asset, with bumps, bruises, and scar tissue in perpetuity. Ryan wakes up each morning with a series of mostly metaphorical fires to extinguish: the new cloud-based booking system has crashed and golfers can’t pay for their tee times; an irrigation pipe has exploded on the 7th hole, flooding the fairway with water and detritus.
That’s the cost of running a family business: it’s in your blood, and it’s insatiable. But that gives Ryan and his team complete autonomy to try new, creative ideas.
For one, the O’Meara family answers to very few parties. No KemperSports, no Troon, no management company calling the shots or manning the till. No degree of detached ambivalence toward your experience with the place. No “let’s squeeze as much as we can out of the property until it buckles.” There’s just family; just a collective understanding that the course and its patrons will be a whole lot happier if they’re treated with care and respect.
Inheritance takes boundless forms. Some baubles and trinkets from worldly travels. Your mother’s eyebrows. A life-altering wad of cash. For Ryan, inheritance has amounted to this golf course: the sum of grass, dirt, metal piping, and the pursuit of creating a beacon for what golf should be. He’s recently had to reckon with the fact that Wildwood Golf Course is, in many ways, him: created by his parents, colored by his community, substantiated and maintained by his own work.
Ryan has grand visions for the future of the golf course. A relocated green for the first hole. An expanded practice facility. A community mural to decorate the maintenance shed on the tenth hole. More programs to get youth out there, playing. But he knows good things like these take time and require patience.
For now, Ryan is squarely focused on how he can continue Wildwood’s mission of being a golf course for everyone. That, and making time for his own young family. “I won’t force golf on my two kids,” he says. “But they’ll have some serious mowing to do in a few years.”