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Discovering a Nine-Hole Fantasy Island Gem in Michigan

Gary Van Sickle found Iyopawa Island Golf Club on map by accident and had to experience its unique layout.

COLDWATER LAKE, Mich. — No man is an island. Someone famous said that. Paul Simon, maybe, or Billy Bob Shakespeare. Nope, the Internet says it was John Donne, a 17th-century clergyman. What a buzzkill answer.

No man is an island but a golf course can be. Think “island green” only much, much bigger. Imagine a golf course that covers an entire island. Unlikely?

Meet Iyopawa Island Golf Club. More than 80% of tiny Iyopawa Island (pronounced Eye-oh-PA-wah) is a delightful, well-maintained and compact nine-hole golf course. The island’s Coldwater Lake shoreline is covered by homes that encircle the 60-plus acre golf course.

Iyopawa Island Golf Club

Iyopawa Island Golf Club's compact nine holes.

With the lake setting, it looks like a classic Michigan summer-vacation oasis. Yet it’s barely 15 minutes from the Indiana Toll Road near the Michigan-Indiana border. It is conveniently (or inconveniently) located 135 miles west of Detroit; 80 miles south of Lansing, Mich.; and 77 miles east of South Bend, Ind.

I accidentally spotted this island-golf anomaly on Once I did, I was hooked. I checked the course’s Facebook page, saw some pictures and quickly contracted Road Trip Fever. It was just over four hours away from me in Pittsburgh. I had to see it for myself.

I would not have found Iyopawa Island without help from Arnold Schwarzenegger. His voice, The Terminator, is what I use on the Waze app. “Exit right, I in-SEEST!” I followed his army-like directions—left, right, left—through a few residential neighborhoods. Then the road narrowed, I could see water behind tiny cottages on each side. I crossed a short land bridge, and there was a large sign beneath a flag where the road split: Iyopawa Island. The golf course was just behind it.

Iyopawa Road, the one way by car onto Iyopawa Island.

On Iyopawa Road, the one way by car onto the island.

The clubhouse is small and fairly spartan. Even a Spartan would wonder, “Is this it?” The club doesn’t have a liquor license or a kitchen. So there is no bar, no beer and no hot food. But course manager-operator Marty McKitterick keeps a cooler filled with soft drinks and candy bars. I like spartan.

“I wish we did have a liquor license,” McKitterick said. “I really just want beer and wine. But I’ve gone down that rabbit hole with the state of Michigan a couple of times. It’s their rules. We’ve got to have 18 holes to get a license. I don’t know why that makes a difference. But that’s state government for you. What are you gonna do?”

The lack of alcohol doesn’t change the feeling of being on summer vacation once you arrive. It’s a casual club, open to the public. It’s so casual, it doesn’t hold an official club championship. The club’s big annual event is an outing/party on the second weekend in August with a local band named "Island Vibe" and food.

The course record? “I don’t know if there is one but I shot 26 once, 10 under,” said McKittrick, who has run the course for 16 summers. “One of my employees shot 26 as well.”

It is in keeping with the island’s casual mystique that the course record is sketchy. But 26 is a strong number. Let’s go with that.

I asked McKittrick what he shot on the second nine. He didn’t play a second nine. “I figured I wasn’t going to do any better than that,” he said, “so why keep playing?”

The course has three par-3s, three par-4s and three par-5s. It opened for play in 1932. The history is casual, too. Who wanted a golf course? Who built and designed it 90 years ago? McKitterick doesn’t know. Any old-time members who did know have passed on. I couldn’t find answers, either, but the Internet knows this much: In the 1920s, the island was owned by Daniel W. Weage and boasted one of the country’s largest farms for growing peonies, making it a national attraction for botanists and garden clubs. Before that, it was a fruit farm. Way, way before that, it was a battleground in Potawatomie Indian lore. Possibly the 17th-century Beaver Wars or the French and Indian War?

Did I mention this place is casual? I arrived unannounced, paid $19 for nine holes and a cart and joined local (but not island) residents John and Steve on the first tee. John wore a Cleveland Browns T-shirt while Steve, with glasses and a beard, sported a Detroit Lions T-shirt. So this is a T-shirt-casual course.

An Iyopawa Island Golf Club hat

Iyopawa Island-casual is the vibe all around.

It nice to know that a Browns fan and Lions fan could peacefully join a stranger from Steelers country. Well, we agreed that all three teams are destined to disappoint this season. Misery loves company, especially in football.

But we weren’t miserable about the first tee being open at lunchtime on a balmy, hazy, almost-autumn Sunday afternoon.

The first hole is a short par-5 that crooks slightly to the right. A residential street runs the length of the right side and is semi-protected by trees. That was good because I still had steering-wheel hands and blocked my drive into those trees. My new friends granted me a mulligan. (O.K., I may have to start rooting for the Lions—but not the Browns, not ever.) I promptly blocked the second try even farther right.

I found the first tee shot in play behind a tree, batted it under some branches and made a bogey. I never found the second ball. For the sake of this epic story, I drove down that street after the round, hoping to find that ball in somebody’s yard or birdbath or at the base of a lawn orb or something. Nothing doing. I did find a Pro V1 but it wasn’t mine. I hate a story without a punchline.

Steve the Lions fan played pinball with a few trees on the first hole’s left side, meanwhile, until he suddenly ripped an iron shot to the green’s edge. “Write about that shot,” he said, having already learned I was a writer, “not the rest of them.”

Don’t worry, our shots were not worthy of play-by-play. Neither was my putting. My hands were jittery just holding the putter, no doubt from four-plus hours of driving at 79 mph—I mean, cruising at the legal speed limit, officer, sir—and weaving between the Ohio Turnpike’s endless stream of 18-wheelers.

Any nine-hole course is like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box. You don’t know what you’re going to get. I got caramel-smooth greens at Iyopawa Island Golf that rolled at a pretty quick speed. Sensational. From tee-to-green, it was neatly trimmed grass, not many weeds. I’d rate the conditions an A but considering a nine-hole course’s limited budget, make it an A+.

Chipping up to the green at Iyopawa Golf Club.

Chipping up to the green at Iyopawa Island Golf Club.

I can see how a good player like a young McKitterick racked up a 26. The course is 2,781 yards from the tips, 2,625 yards from the white tees. All three par-4s are drivable (from 276 to 297 yards) for a medium-long hitter (not me anymore, if ever) and all three par-5s (the longest was 464 yards) are reachable in two.

Two of the three par-3s are brutes, though, at 194 and 209 yards. The latter is No. 3, a long par-3 with no bunkers that intimidates with its length. And the greens are a little smaller than average, I think, or maybe it just seemed that way because my approach shots didn’t follow instructions.

I liked the fifth hole, a 152-yard par-3 at the far end of the property. The green was near some lakeshore homes. I hit an iron shot in close but missed the birdie putt. Before I putted, a speedboat loudly raced past out on the lake. I caught glimpses of it through the gaps between the houses. My missed putt was probably the boat’s fault. Or my caddie’s. (I didn’t have one.) Surely it wasn’t my fault.

The coolest hole at Iyopawa is the 6th. It’s a par-5 at a mere 438 yards but about 120 yards from the green, the fairway makes a 90-degree right turn. Trees block the right corner so you can only reach the green in two only if you favor the fairway’s left side. I know that because I did it with my second tee ball. My first one veered right, through some trees, into or over a garage and may have tried to go kayaking on Coldwater Lake. I had a 7-iron shot for my approach with my second ball but hooked it left. Objects hit left of the green or over the back may be closer to out of bounds on the street than they appear. I came perilously close to hitting another one out of play. Ultimately, it was an adventurous bogey.

The 7th and 8th holes are unforgettable. The green at the 7th, a par-3 of 194 yards, slopes sharply from back to front. My tee shot came up short, barely on the green, and that turned out to be the place to put it if I was interested in two-putting or less. “The next green is even worse,” John warned me. “I hate that green.”

I could see why. The 8th is a 297-yard par 4, a little downhill, with an ultra-severe slope from back to front. The back third of the green is realistically unusable except on Superintendent’s Revenge Day. John’s bad karma came back to bite him. His approach went long and he had to chip down the green’s crested slope. It didn’t go well.

My favorite hole is the 9th. It’s 291 yards, uphill, with a swale in the fairway. I thought if I busted a drive beyond the swale, my ball might scamper on the firm ground up near the green. I’ll never know because I hooked one into the trees, near the first tee, hit a trick-shot grounder out from under some low branches, chipped on and made another bogey. A drive that ends up in that swale, by the way, faces a blind approach shot. Which would have been preferable to my restricted-swing swordfight with pine branches. The 9th fairway is none too wide and a big hitter who bashes one too far (still not me) might dent the siding on the clubhouse behind the green.

The welcome sign to Iyopawa Island in Michigan.

The author found the Island by accident but highly recommends the course, which will reopen in May.

The only disappointing part about Iyopawa Island Golf is that the surrounding homes kept me from getting a panoramic view of the lake. Coldwater Lake, where the water temperature is briskly in the upper 60s—hence its name—is a popular fishing lake, by the way, for panfish, largemouth bass and northern pike. And, of course, the lake is active all summer with boaters.

“From May 1 to mid-September,” McKitterick said, “it’s controlled chaos around here.”

Controlled chaos? He just described my round.

The area was serenely quiet during my visit. There are only nine year-round island residents, McKitterick said, and he closes the course in mid-October. (Once again, I successfully met a deadline.)

I discovered the anomaly that is Iyopawa Island Golf Club by accident. When I return, it will be on purpose.