Island Hills Golf Course: Come Experience the Dream

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Centreville, MI - Building a golf course - taking it from dream to plan to reality - is a long, arduous undertaking. This is especially true for first-timers like Tom and Lori Templin, owners of the two-year old Island Hills Golf Club in Centreville, MI.

Adopting the mantra "Build it, and they will come" from the movie Field of Dreams, Tom and Lori persevered for years to take a stunning piece of land and turn it into one of the most spectacular golf courses you will find in the state.

Fortunately for golfers, Tom and Lori were not discouraged from pursuing their dream by the likes of shortsighted bankers or cynical non-golfers. Whenever they looked out over the 420-acre parcel of land on the shores of Lake Templene, they saw a golf course.

Tom recounts how, when prospects looked bleak, he would bring his boat across the lake, anchor it, and climb up to the top of the bluff that now serves as the tee station for the par-3 15th hole. Sitting on a stump and gazing down over the lagoon at what would eventually become the 15th green, he would exclaim, "This will make one heck of a golf hole!" Then he'd climb back down to his boat and sail off to try again.

But it isn't just the heartwarming stories and family atmosphere that draw golfers to Island Hills in ever-increasing numbers. The quality, playability, and sheer singularity of the golf holes here are unsurpassed anywhere in the state.

In particular, the five closing holes-which play onto, on, and then back off an island on the west side of the 1,050-acre Lake Templene-have been called by one Detroit newspaper, the best five finishing holes in the state. One major Chicago paper has crowned them as the best five east of the Mississippi. We're talking serious kudos, here.

On paper, Island Hills has all the right ingredients: 7,055 yards from the tips, par 72, rating of 73.2, slope of 130, bent grass on tees (Penncross), fairways (Penneagle/Pennlinks blend), and greens (Providence Bentgrass), bluegrass and fescue rough, water in play on seven holes, practice range and putting greens, pro-shop with eye-catching logo gear, and bar & grill with a large patio and tented area for special events. But a lot of new, upscale courses have similar features.

The things that make Island Hills special are harder to list on a fact sheet.

First of all, course architect Ray Hearn (whose other recent projects include Twin Lakes in Detroit, Mistwood in Traverse City, and Mistwood, Chicago) had a remarkable piece of land with which to work. In fact, he's called it the most unique site he's worked with in Michigan. Hearn was able to fully utilize the natural wetlands, lakeshore, island, and woods to ensure that no two holes run parallel (other than Nos. 1 and 10, which are separated by large mounds).

He balanced forced carries off the tees and to the greens on some holes with less daunting tee shots on others and sufficient opportunities for those who prefer to bump-and-run.

The greens are monstrous, averaging 9,000 sq. ft., and place a premium on not just getting on, but getting close. (Note to Self: 130-ft. putts over pronounced undulations are not easy to get down in two!)

Luckily, Island Hills has installed the ProShot GPS System in every cart so that you'll always know the exact yardage to the pins. (For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing a round using this system, let me tell you that it is a joy and relief not having to search around for sprinkler heads all day. And the system also allows the pro shop to keep track of all carts on the course and regulate pace of play more efficiently.)

Finally, the land allowed Hearn to include some of his design hallmarks as well as some almost whimsical features. As an example of the former, you'll notice on several tees (e.g, on Nos. 2, 17) that bunkers serve as targets out where the fairways bend.

As for the whimsy, take the waste-bunker winding from the tees on the par-3 5th all the way to the green on the par-5 6th. At over one-half mile long, this twisting, turning, slithering trough of Lake Michigan sand is almost mythical in its proportions. If you do go far enough left to ever get into it, you might require several strokes to get out.

The most outstanding feature of the course, however, is the final five holes. Make that six, actually. From the tees on the 655-yard 13th to the severely back-to-front tilted green on the 538-yard 18th, you will be hard-pressed to find any other contiguous six holes that are either as memorable or as fun.

No. 13 is long (655 yards), but it normally plays even longer since it is slightly uphill and usually into the prevailing wind. At least it was nice of Hearn and owner Tom Templin to provide two fairways for you to play (Ray wanted the right, Tom the left).

The fairways both run from tee to green, and are separated by a strip of large trees. Either fairway works well, although if you play the left, your final approach to the green (almost certainly not your second, and possibly not even your third) will need to carry the deepest and most picturesque greenside bunker on the course.

The par-3, 186-yard 14th begins your adventure onto the island. From elevated tees, you play onto a peninsular green over wetlands that are evidently more expansive than the yardage shows (at least according to my well-struck ball that disappeared into the morass without even a whimper).

Hot on the tail of the par-3 14th is the par-3 15th (154 yards), which, while short, forces you to carry your tee shot over a deep lagoon to a green that falls back off into the water if you're even a bit too short. The elevated tees (especially the whites and golds), the angle of the green in relation to the water (especially from the reds), and the contouring of the green make this a much tougher par 3 than it shows on the scorecard.

No. 16 has to be played to be believed, much less appreciated. At only 351 yards, it's not long, at least not on paper. However, the hole plays all uphill and, more importantly, your tee shot is hit from an island way out in what seems like the middle of Lake Templene. Talk about playing tricks with your mind!

The green looks a mile away from the speck of green on which you're standing waggling your driver. Heck, the fairway seems practically that far! But rest assured, a solid drive to dry land offers birdie opportunities. (When John Daly played the course last year, he came about 20 feet short of driving the green!)

Not so with the par-4 No. 17, the hardest hole on the course at 424 yards into the prevailing wind coming off the lake. From the tees, the fairway looks like nothing more than a narrow strip of turf not much wider than the cart path. What's worse is the fairway falls off dramatically to the right, straight down into the lake.

Once again, however, you can take heart in the fact that the fairway is actually generous once you get to the top of the hill. A well-struck shot toward the aiming bunker on the back left edge of the fairway will leave a reasonable shot into the green.

Your drive on the 538-yard 18th takes you off the island (well, it takes your ball off; your cart takes you off). You'll need one last solid tee ball here, as a long carry is required to clear the water and position yourself for an easy lay-up.

If you snigger at the word "lay-up," feel free to test your mettle by going for it in two, but be forewarned that the green is fronted by a lovely, rocky stream and waterfall, and the slope of the green itself demands that you stay beneath the hole to have a decent putt.

Even if you're not one of those golfers who memorize course layouts in your mind as you play, I guarantee that you will have trouble forgetting these last six holes at Island Hills. They are truly "must plays."

In terms of design, Island Hills refuses to disappoint even the most exacting reviewer. Certain details of the conditions, however-as is the case with nearly all new courses-may detract a bit from the overall experience. A few drainage issues will be dealt with within the next year. Also, it seems that golfers here have an inordinate amount of difficulty repairing their ball marks on the greens. Old, unrepaired and badly repaired marks spotted several greens.

Overall, however, it's hard to find any quibbles at Island Hills, aside from one: Although St. Joseph County and the surrounding area have more shoreline than any other county in the state (!), and more inland water acreage than Door County, WI (!!), and literally hundreds of nearby attractions (from Amish bakeries to historic buildings, to fabulous golf at Island Hills), visitors cannot find any resort-sized hotels any closer than Kalamazoo (an hour away).

Fortunately, there are several charming B & B's (see accompanying article) and Ma & Pa motels scattered about. But if these are full, and you want to stay in the area to enjoy some of the wonderful attractions and distractions that this oft-forgotten corner of the state has to offer (again, see accompanying article), you had better have a comfy car, because that's where you'll be sleeping.

In fact, representatives from a major TV network who visited Island Hills to scout out potential future sites for televised tour events were entranced by the look and feel of the course. Yet as wonderful as telegenic as the course would be, it was eliminated from consideration simply because there would be no place for the players, caddies, and crew to stay, much less the tens of thousands of fans.

Despite the logistical inconveniences, Island Hills offers a wonderful playing opportunity for golfers from all over south-central Michigan region. The course is only 30-45 min. from South Bend/Elkhart, IN, about an hour from Kalamazoo, one and a half from Ann Arbor and Lansing, two from Toledo, and Chicago, and two and a half from Detroit.

At only two hours from the Chicago Loop, Windy City golfers plagued by crowded courses, astronomical green fees, and cranky city-folk will find both the golf and the drive utterly relaxing.

Just as Tom and Lori believed all along, if they built it, golfers would come. And they are indeed coming from all over to experience Island Hills, the golf course and the golf dream.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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