Design a golf course in Iraq? No problem, says Cynthia Dye McGarey

Erbil Golf Club, Iraq — Early Stages
Erbil Golf Club's northern Iraq location is not dissimilar to Las Vegas in terms of turf and water availability, says Cynthia Dye McGarey.

McGarey, of the famous Dye architectural lineage, is no stranger to designing courses in remote locales; will complete the Middle Eastern country's first course in 2022

As a 19-year-old, Cynthia Dye McGarey once drove from Ohio to Mexico City to come up with a golf course landscape design for her father, Roy Dye.

“It was in the middle of nowhere,” McGarey recalls of her long drive. “At that time Mexico City was the largest city in the world. My girlfriend and I had the windows down and the radio blaring and thought nothing of it. Looking back on it now it was kind of crazy.”

Fast forward more than four decades later and McGarey, from one of the most famous golf architectural families — the Dyes of Dye Designs — is once again sort of in the middle of nowhere, this time in northern Iraq, designing that country’s first golf course.

McGarey is more than comfortable in remote locations across the globe. She designed Dreamland Golf Club in Baku, Azerbaijan, that nation’s first and only golf course located near the Caspian Sea in 2015. She has also done extensive work in China and South Korea, and is now starting a project in Russia. The owners of Dreamland tapped her to tackle the Iraq project.

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McGarey said architects and contractors working in Asia and Europe used to sit around and wonder who would be the first person to design a course in Iraq.

“I guess that person is me,” said McGarey, whose aunt and uncle were Alice and Pete Dye. “When I was offered the job, my husband, who does all of my business contracts, said ‘Take it, you won’t have over go there.’ Well, the ink wasn’t even dry on the contract and they say we’re having a meeting with the land planner and I needed to come to Erbil to see the property. It was hysterical.”

A two-hour flight from Istanbul, Turkey, Iraq carries a Level 4 U.S. travel advisory due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, and the country’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens. McGarey, who went to Iraq four times to craft the Erbil Hills Golf Club before COVID-19 travel restrictions, says she doesn’t really fear for her safety.

“Fortunately, one of my neighbors is a retired director of the CIA and spent a lot of time there, and she said the most trouble you will find is with the Turkish truck drivers,” McGarey said with a chuckle. “When I go there I’m going with a client who is very well connected. All the cities have road blocks so they are all secured. You go into buildings and they are always looking for bombs, but I have been to a lot of places like that. Go to anywhere in South America and it’s like that. At least these guys in Iraq know how to use their guns, they are serious.”

The terrain at the Erbil Hills Golf Club, which will be a gated private facility with elaborate villas and homes surrounding the course, favors that of Las Vegas.

“Just like Las Vegas it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter there,” she said. “And most would not think this but there is a lot of water there, and like Las Vegas, a lot of that water is underground. It probably was a sea at one time because there is a lot of cobblestone there.”

Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, is home to Kurds along with German and French citizens, and U.S. military. The population is estimated at close to 900,000.

“When I was in Azerbaijan, nobody played golf either, but everyone in Erbil is very excited about the golf course,” McGarey said. “These people are in the oil industry and they travel to all the other countries in the Middle East that have golf courses, so there are quite a few Iraqis who do play golf.

“And now there is a huge junior golf program in Azerbaijan. These kids don’t have anything to do. I think it’s going to be very popular. Iraq really has some very nice terrain in these different cities in the northern part of the country. And there is a lot of wealth and a lot of money there. I think they are starving for it.”

A few holes are left to be grassed with hybrid Bermudagrass fairways and bentgrass greens, with the potential for nine holes to be playable by later this fall, and the entire course opening sometime in 2022. The sales office and about a dozen villas have been built surrounding the oasis, McGarey said. “Green (grass) and water sell a lot over there,” she said.

“We even started our own little nursery in Iraq and we’ll harvest the grass from there in the spring and just keep on going because it will rain all winter,” McGarey said. “And it gets very cold. It’s more like you see in Biblical conditions; the wheat will come up in the spring with the sheep and it transforms overnight into this green, lush desert valley. It is quite an interesting place.”

She says has been somewhat frustrated with not being able to put her boots on the ground in Iraq for about 18 months because of various pandemic restrictions, along with some safety concerns. McGarey said there have been eight drone attacks at the airport just this year. 

“And because of COVID it has also been a slow go getting materials, too,” she added. “People talk about drones doing all this work so we don’t have to travel as much, but I can’t see anything but dirt, I just have to take my shaper’s word for it.”

Just like her Dreamland project, once Erbil Hills Golf Club is completed it’s sure to join a long list of unique Dye family architectural projects.

“Nothing is small. It’s like Asia, everything is supersized,” she said.