These days, it’s pretty rare for an architect to be asked to design the only course in a country. But for Cynthia Dye McGarey, that happened. Her project on the outskirts of Erbil in northern Iraq will, when it opens, be the only golf course in the country. It won’t be the first. There were once a couple of sand layouts and one grass course before, but when the Gulf War came the courses closed.
So how did the Erbil Hills project come about? The answer lies in another of the architect’s pioneering projects, Dreamland Golf Club in Baku, which itself was just the second in Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea, north of Iran. “The owner of Dreamland is the uncle of Hassan Gozal, who is in charge of this project for First Quantum Capital,” says Dye.
Erbil is real estate-driven. Around 300 grand residences are planned, along with several other amenities including a hotel, shops and sports areas. “It will be a community experience,” says Dye.
Erbil revolves around a central citadel, a Unesco World Heritage Site that forms the city centre, and is circled by three primary ring roads. Erbil Hills is about 10 kilometres north, lying between the outer two rings.
“The site for the course was farmland, with a lot of grazing grasses,” says Dye, adding that it reminds her of the site she worked on with her uncle Pete and cousin Perry for The Wolf course at Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. “At Erbil, we’re very close to the mountains. In fact, there are quite a lot of houses up there because it gets cooler. The foothills have plenty of pine trees too. It’s a little bit of a different setting to one that Americans and Europeans would think of for Iraq – there’s a lot of versatility in the terrain.
“A large valley runs through the whole property. There is a 3.5-metre storm drain under a new highway that connects the site to the upper valleys, with the course routed along a water detention system in the bottom of the valley. This means that water is seen by every golf hole, but it is not always in play. The lakes and the storm drain will help to prevent the city with flooding issues, which has happened in the past.”
Dye says she was hesitant when approached for the project, but was assured that safety was a top priority. “When I first visited the site, I was quite impressed with the security,” she says. “It’s still in place today.
“The local people are extremely nice, and the food is excellent. It’s a very family-orientated place – the Erbil community reminds me of Latin American countries where you find multiple generations living together or near each other. There is a lot of socialising together – I like that aspect of their culture a lot.”
Erbil is the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, home to about 1.5 million people including an increasing number of expats from Western countries, particularly those that work in the oil industry. “Every nationality is represented in Erbil,” says Dye. “Nearby is the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr, a Catholic seminary, and all the religious and ethnic communities are represented in the city.”
One aim of the project is to introduce locals to golf and provide them with a place to learn how to play. “We have planned a great practice facility, just like what we did in Baku,” says Dye. “It’s all about teaching locals to play golf, although we expect the low handicap players to use it too. They’re starving for this type of sports entertainment here. Between October and April, the weather is nice, and I believe the club will be very busy, therefore creating a lot of Iraqi golfers and helping the future of the sport in the country.”
For a nation new to the sport, Dye’s design includes multiple tees, generous width and not much rough. “You can put the ball anywhere,” she says. “The fairways are wide, especially at the landing area, and the bunkers have been designed to be in play more for the better golfers. The greens have multiple ‘outs’ and they are not super fast. There are rolls coming into them and then it flattens out with multiple pin placements. This sort of design is key to making it challenging for some but not for the for average player. We want them to get to the pin. We also have the ability to tighten the greens up to get them playing as hard as we want.”
Dye Designs, which Cynthia runs alongside her husband O’Brien and son Matthew, has projects in progress in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Serbia, along with renovation work in the US.
“Golf’s surge in popularity looks to be sustained, but I don’t know how long it will last,” says Dye. “It seems the industry is building more high-end and destination golf courses for very few people, and the remodelling work is raising the prices of golf for the average player. These two factors are what concerns me: are we outpricing the sustainability of golf courses and the people playing them? Everybody wants to remodel their golf course, but it’s all the old guys at the clubs asking for it as they can afford it. We need to build more municipal golf that people can afford or remodel courses in a way that doesn’t outprice the existing players. That is the challenge for the future of our industry.
“A lot of our remodelling work relates to decreasing the maintenance on a golf course. Everything has a life expectancy, and before clubs spend a lot of money on upgrading their irrigation system, they have to make course changes to make sure everything is in place. Bunkers are a huge part of it, so is tee placement and grass reduction.”
Sustainability and playability are key to Dye’s design philosophy.
“Designers evolve to their own likings,” she says. “I always think about playability – my uncle would say to me, ‘How do you think you’re going to get there?’ I’m not the best golfer in the family, so I really think about this, especially from a forward tee perspective, although I often play from the intermediate tees. I don’t make things too easy, as those playing from a forward tee still like a challenge. I like multiple tees and different angles, and offsetting hazards to provide various obstacles depending on what tee you are playing from.
“For my design at West Cliffs along the Atlantic coast in Obidos, Portugal, I included carries because we had grass limitations due to the amount of vegetation. We have a similar brief in Saudi where we’re working with a certain amount of grass, and we have to make the most of it as well as making the native vegetation more playable. So, areas of vegetation and rocks are usually the carries and areas around tees.”
Dye has taken pride from seeing her son continuing the Dye family tree of designers. “He said when he was young that he didn’t want to be a golf course architect because all the golf courses will have been built by the time he grew up,” says Dye. “But we’re still building them! Matthew has been getting me more involved in remodelling because he’s been doing it for the last eight years.
“Driving ranges and practice facilities are also becoming a great way to showcase our design abilities to provide amazing places for people to learn, play and socialise. I’m really happy about what’s happening in this space and the people are really engaging and making them social venues. Dreamland’s social schedule is always packed – it’s a whole new experience and it brings more people to golf. I hope Erbil achieves something similar.”
Dye Designs has worked with IMG Golf Course Services on both Erbil Hills and Dreamland projects.
“The future is bright for golf, especially due to the pandemic as people saw golf courses as safe havens and where they could go and belong to a community,” says Dye. “That has helped expand golf. Golf provides people with a place to go and meet others, socialise and belong.”
This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.