Having endured one banking collapse, golf-course developer Jerry Barton is back

December 23, 2008

“The good book says it shall rain on the rich and poor alike,” Jerry Barton said, rising from the cushy leather seat of his private jet. “When it comes to customs, not the same thing.”

With a little chuckle Barton stepped onto the tarmac of Sir Grantley Adams International Airport, in Barbados. He had begun the day at his main residence, in Annapolis, Md. Over the last few years Barton, 77, has made this trip often enough that he fell into familiar flirtatious banter with the pretty young women behind the customs counter, who sent him on his way in less than a minute. (At the other end of the airport the grumpy tourists who had arrived on a commercial flight were queued in a long customs line.) Barton was in Barbados for one of his regular checkups on Apes Hill, a golf and real estate development that his company, Landmark Land, is overseeing on 870 gorgeous acres of former sugarcane land. Apes Hill is a blockbuster — the course is still growing in, but with its scintillating design, verdant jungle setting and views of both the Caribbean and the Atlantic, it is destined to land on the pages of glossy calendars and atop various Best New lists.

Jerry Barton
Developer Jerry Barton passed away July 27, 2018.

However, Apes Hill is about commerce as well as art, and business couldn’t be better, even amidst a global financial meltdown. On Nov. 24 Barton and his Barbadian partner, Sir Charles Williams, closed a deal in which a homebuilder bought 31 lots across 25 acres for $35 million. A couple of weeks before that, the choicest single lot on the property sold for a cool $10 million, and another lot is currently under contract for $3.5 million.

Even though the first nine holes of the course won’t be open for play until Christmas, the 283 homesites are nearly all gone, snapped up by the likes of pop singer Rihanna, a native of Barbados, and Michael Vaughn, one of England’s most celebrated cricketers. Demand has been so relentless that in the new year Landmark will begin developing the next phase at Apes Hill, which will include a new nine holes and 200 or so half-acre lots that are expected to bring an average of at least $750,000 apiece. Barbados has long been the warm-weather destination of choice for the upper crust of England and Ireland — the Concorde used to make twice-weekly trips from London in season — and Barton says of his clientele, “Either these people don’t read the newspaper, or they’re so rich they never have recessions.” He knows it’s the latter.

Apes Hill — so named because it is on the second-highest area of land in Barbados, and is where the island’s monkeys have congregated since a 16th-century drought — is only the latest chapter in the rise and fall and rise again of Jerry Barton. In the 1970s and ’80s you could scarcely slice a drive without your ball landing on a piece of earth either owned or developed by Landmark. Among Barton’s signature creations from that era are Kiawah Island Resort in South Carolina; Oak Tree in Edmond, Okla.; La Quinta, PGA West and Mission Hills Country Club in the Palm Springs area; Palm Beach (Fla.) Polo & Country Club; and Carmel Valley (Calif.) Ranch.

For a long time Landmark’s burnt-orange oak-tree logo was ubiquitous, adorning the polo shirts of numerous PGA Tour pros, including Paul Azinger, Fred Couples, Larry Nelson and Craig Stadler. But Barton lost nearly everything in the savings-and-loan crisis of the early 1990s and spent the rest of the decade fighting the U.S. government for a fair settlement while trying to keep his company afloat. Now, with all that cash pouring in from Apes Hill, he is well-positioned to benefit from the latest macroeconomic crisis that has rocked the golf world (and beyond).

“Lately I’ve been spending most of my days fielding calls from bank officers and hedge fund managers, all of them hoping I can salvage a bad development for them,” Barton said a couple of days before Thanksgiving. “It is indeed ironic that the last time something like this happened, I was one of the biggest victims. With the market being flooded with available properties, let’s hope that I have the wisdom to choose correctly and the discipline not to choose too many.”

While Apes Hill sails along, six other large upscale developments have ground to a halt in the Caribbean, according to Barton, who makes a careful study of these things. “The sad thing is that each of these projects is someone’s dream that has died,” Barton says, but he may yet bring a few back to life. He is on the verge of signing a deal to take over a distressed project on the island of St. Lucia in which Landmark would complete construction on a Jack Nicklaus–designed course that was shut down with only six holes roughed in and build the accompanying development of 300 homesites and a new marina. Barton has always preferred to work with raw land, but he says, “Over the next three years I see us dealing exclusively in turnaround situations.”

What makes Landmark an attractive savior is not simply the cash it has on hand but also its vast experience and vertical expertise. Given a piece of property, Landmark can create a land plan, oversee the arduous permitting processes, build the golf course with its talented in-house designers, market and sell the property and, if the conditions are right, even construct the houses. Apes Hill’s success owes much to the motherly care of the indefatigable Barton and his dedicated lieutenants, a handful of whom have been living full time in Barbados for years. Going back to 2005, Barton has visited Apes Hill twice a month and for a long time made the trip on commercial airlines, rising at 3:30 a.m. to catch a connection through Miami. The return flight landed at Baltimore-Washington International at midnight, meaning it was usually around 2 a.m. by the time he fell into bed at his home in Annapolis. The sale of all those pricey lots allowed Barton to buy an Astra jet in late 2006, and it came with provenance — the plane was owned by the founders of Google until they traded up.

Barton is a quintessential American success story, the son of schoolteachers who grew up in tiny Stroud, Okla. (pop. 800). At age five he was selling popcorn at a family movie theater, and he had saved enough money at 15 to buy his first rental property. By the time he left for the University of Oklahoma, he owned 16 more properties, the seeds of an empire. He got into the golf development game only after what he calls “an early midlife crisis.” Barton spent the ’60s developing commercial real estate all over Oklahoma City, making a very handsome living but feeling unfulfilled. In 1971, when he was pushing 40, he took a sabbatical to work as the chief of staff for Oklahoma governor David Hall, for the salary of $1 a year. During that time Barton realized he no longer wanted to build steel boxes but rather create communities. He struck on golf courses as a way to foster an identity and pride of place.

“Where I grew up there were sharecroppers and landowners,” Barton says. “Land was a vindication of your arrival as a person.” Barton retains frugal middle-class tastes, which are obvious in the dusty old pickup he drives around Maryland or the no-frills food he supplied for the flight to Barbados: grocery-store sandwiches, chips and potato salad. He is a little self-conscious about the jet-setting, saying with a touch of defensiveness, “It really is a necessity for a worldwide land developer.”

But Barton’s plane is also richly symbolic, proof that he has once again arrived after so much professional turmoil. “Buying the plane probably made me a little happier than it should have,” he says. “I had a plane for 27 years — until the government took it away.”

BEFORE THE trip to Barbados, I had been on a private jet only one other time — 22 years earlier when I was 13. That plane was Barton’s too. The occasion was my sister Louisa’s 16th birthday. As a treat Barton had flown us and a handful of Lou’s friends from Monterey, Calif., down to Los Angeles for lunch. No wonder that for most of my youth I thought Jerry Barton was the richest man in the world and maybe the most fascinating.

He had first come into my family’s life in 1980, when my mother, Barbara, became the first woman elected to the Monterey County board of supervisors. Hers was a grassroots campaign run out of our cramped living room, and my mom shocked the local political cognoscenti by unseating a well-entrenched incumbent. A couple of days after my mom was sworn in, Barton dropped by her office.

“You don’t know me,” he said by way of introduction, “but on the advice of my attorney I spent $30,000 trying to beat you. Now I’m hoping we can learn to work together.”

My mom’s pithy reply: “I’m not concerned with who didn’t support me in the past. I’m interested in who will support me going forward.”

They hit it off immediately, and over time my mom and sister and I often socialized with Barton and his wife, Jo, and their three kids. (Later in life, when I had lost my youthful innocence, it occurred to me why a real estate developer might initiate a friendship with a politician who voted on land-use issues.) What I liked so much about Barton was that he talked to me as if I were an adult, with a bewitching mix of homespun sayings and erudite references befitting a country boy who would go on to study metaphysics at the University of Chicago and political history at Oxford, as Barton did. My mom would often have to interpret for me, and it’s still a challenge to keep up with Barton, who is as likely to quote Joni Mitchell as Kipling or Shakespeare.

Most of our family get-togethers were at the Bartons’ mind-blowing house perched on the edge of a cliff in Big Sur, a 45-minute drive from my home in very middle-class Salinas. There was an indoor swimming pool encased in a glass dome and a hot tub built of rocks, both offering spectacular views up and down the coast. The living room had a soaring ceiling that was high enough to annually accommodate a Christmas tree about the size of what you find in Rockefeller Center, and over time those trees featured a handful of ornaments that Louisa and I had made in school. Barton was the most courtly host imaginable, but we used to sneak off to a game room for Ping-Pong battles royal during which he revealed a vicious competitive streak that I both feared and admired.

In 1991 I left for college and pretty much lost contact with Barton and his family. In the ensuing years I got occasional reports that his company was in disarray, which I couldn’t quite believe and never fully understood. Turns out the trouble had its origins in 1982, when Landmark contracted with the federal government to acquire the Dixie Federal Savings & Loan Association, Louisiana’s largest insolvent thrift. Barton brought in some imaginative MBAs who steadily reduced the operating losses, and he also transferred Landmark’s real estate holdings to Dixie, a portfolio that in ’89 would be valued at $1.9 billion by Deloitte & Touche.

Well-capitalized and profitable, Dixie was a model of a rehabilitated S&L, and it was a cheap financing vehicle for Landmark’s developments, offering loans at .75 of a percentage point below market rates. It was such a win-win that in ’86 Landmark absorbed another insolvent thrift, merging it with Dixie into the renamed Oak Tree Savings. Barton is a proud New Deal Democrat, having been raised amidst drought and Depression, when government assistance was a godsend to many of his neighbors. He is fiercely patriotic, and when his kids were growing up in the ’60s he used to channel JFK and ask them every day after school, “What did you do for your country today?” By helping to save failing banks, Barton felt he was contributing to the common good. “I thought I was part of the solution,” he says. “Unfortunately, the government later decided I was part of the problem.”

Barton’s entry into the savings and loan market had come against the backdrop of Reagan-era deregulation, when less scrupulous wheelers and dealers were turning S&Ls into their private piggy banks to finance risky and often ill-fated investments, leading to widespread insolvency among the nation’s S&Ls. The mounting financial crisis led Congress to create, in 1989, the Office of Thrift Supervision, which was imbued with Draconian powers to root out and prosecute S&L fraud and corruption. Forced by the new rules to extricate his real estate holdings from his savings and loans, Barton came to terms in ’90 with California homebuilder Barry Hon to sell 19 golf courses, four hotels and thousands of acres of undeveloped land for $992 million.

Federal regulators refused to approve the deal because Hon was using Oak Tree for much of his financing. In ’91 a Japanese company offered Barton $847 million for the same properties. Amidst a deepening recession, regulators spent months examining the deal without issuing a ruling and eventually the offer was withdrawn. With the lawsuits and countersuits piling up, Barton’s dealings with the OTS grew increasingly contentious. In ’92 the government seized Landmark’s assets and fired most of its 3,500 employees. Oak Tree Savings was liquidated at a taxpayer cost of about $1.4 billion, ranking it 10th on the list of the era’s costliest S&L bailouts, according to Business Week. The following year Landmark’s resorts were auctioned off for $404 million, which went to the government. “Thirty years of work and $100 million of my money was gone just like that,” Barton says matter-of-factly.

He spent the rest of the ’90s fighting the government in court. Landmark endured — barely — as Barton took out two mortgages on the Big Sur house to help keep the company afloat. It is a measure of the loyalty Barton had fostered that 10 of the top 12 corporate executives stayed on at reduced pay or, at times, none at all. “Jerry held the company together by the sheer force of his personality,” says Chris Cole, who began at Landmark in 1976 and is now a senior vice president. “He is the most relentlessly optimistic person I’ve ever been around. He had every reason to be bitter, and many of us surely were, but he insisted on only looking forward.” Even while it was financially strapped during the mid- to late-’90s, Landmark kept developing golf courses, notably 36 holes designed by Pete Dye at Lost Canyons in Simi Valley, Calif., and Doonbeg, a spectacular links set among towering dunes in southwest Ireland.

Barton was exonerated in a series of courtroom decisions. In 1997 Chief Judge Loren Smith of the Court of Federal Claims wrote in a ruling favorable to Landmark, “The United States has not acted in a manner worthy of the great, just Nation it is.” In 2002 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit finally awarded Landmark $21.5 million in its breach of contract suit against the government, a fraction of what Barton felt he was owed, but enough for him to get back in the ball game.

“When I was fighting the government, I had plenty of time to reflect,” Barton says, forcing a hard laugh. “The old Landmark built some good golf courses and some great golf courses. I didn’t want to build any more good courses. I only wanted to build something extraordinary.”

TO GET from the airport to Apes Hill you travel along a road hugging Barbados’s so-called Platinum Coast. Just past Sandy Lane, the ultraexclusive resort where Tiger Woods was married in 2004, you make a hard right and head up a steep hill, through a neighborhood of modest Barbadian homes. Go a little farther, and the arrival at Apes Hill is announced by the grand sweep of an emerald polo field. After a left turn the drive becomes a transporting experience. Suddenly the road is cut through a valley of coral cay rising 20 or 30 feet on each side, with the walls covered by plantings as green and lush and fragrant as any rain forest.

This is the Gully Road, and it twists gently for nearly a mile, making it golf’s most evocative entrance this side of Magnolia Lane. The Gully Road was Barton’s vision, and he spent more than $1 million bringing it to life. “It provides a sense of place,” Barton says. “Thirty years ago everything had to be brass, marble and dark wood. Now you can find that at the Holiday Inn. Quality today means nature and serenity.”

The same care was brought to the golf course at Apes Hill. The back nine officially opens after Christmas but has been playable for a while now, and it is as spectacular as anything in the Caribbean. The par-3 12th hole is a jaw-dropper, sitting astride a notch of land 900 feet above sea level. The sweeping view straight ahead is of Barbados’s rugged east coast and the churning Atlantic. Turn around and the vista is of the white sand and gentle waters of the Caribbean. Then it’s time to get refocused on the shot at hand, 223 yards steeply downhill, all carry, usually into a headwind. Ensuing holes are just as memorable — the drive on the par-4 13th is framed by massive rock outcroppings and untamed jungle, while at the 14th, another stout two-shotter, the fairway bends through 27 towering queen palm trees.

And yet it is the 16th that is destined to be the most photographed hole on the course. It is a 190-yard par-3 set in a natural cay amphitheater, with a green sitting next to a massive cave and the Caribbean visible in the distance. All of these holes have a sense of seclusion and serenity, as no homes will be built around them. Real estate makes the money at a place like Apes Hill, but Jeff Potts, the course’s lead designer, says, “Golf gets first choice of the land in this company. Always. If real estate wants us to do something, and we think it’s going to hurt the golf, we go to Jerry, and he always supports us.”

This sense of collaboration and compromise is part of Landmark’s culture, and it is made possible because the company is increasingly doing its course design in-house. “Nobody has spent more money on big-name architects than I have in the past,” says Barton. “Frankly, it’s done mostly for marketing. The intensity of the project demands continuity. Whether it’s Pete [Dye] or Jack [Nicklaus] or Greg [Norman], it takes two years to build a course, and they’re there for only 20 days. Better is more important than marketable. Once somebody plays a course, all that matters is how good it is. They don’t care who built it.”

Barton’s obsession with getting the details right is why he was chosen by Sir Charles Williams to develop the land that he had been sitting on for decades. Sir Charles is a success story not unlike Barton, in this case a one-time farmer who has gone on to build the largest construction company in the Caribbean. The polo field near the Apes Hill entrance is his playpen; Williams keeps hundreds of horses on Barbados and regularly competes internationally, including in occasional games with his old polo buddy, Prince Charles.

Apes Hill has tremendous name recognition among the well-heeled of England because Williams sponsors a polo team there that Prince William and Prince Harry regularly play for. At 75 Williams remains a hard-charger on the polo field, but even he is impressed with Barton’s drive. “If I have a criticism of Jerry — no, not criticism, an observation — it’s that his three serious hobbies are work, more work and still more work,” says Williams. “The man is incapable of flippant conversation.”

Barton does not deny that he is fanatical about making up for lost time. “There are certainly easier ways to make money than developing golf course communities, but nothing is as gratifying to your narcissistic self,” he says. “You get to look at an area like God does — you get to determine how people are going to live there for the next 100 years. That’s why all the big egos get into golf course development, because it’s so appealing.”

More than a few of these dreamers got in over their heads in the go-go ’80s, when S&Ls seemed to be giving away money. Twenty years later, when credit was again a little too easy to come by and housing prices seemed like they would never stop climbing, many would-be visionaries began golf developments that are now failing amidst a global economic disaster. Barton has lived through both crises, and against all odds he is now poised for a triumphant final act of his career as a developer. Relaxing on his jet on the way home from Barbados, en route to chasing another deal, Barton had no trouble taking the long view. “If I’ve learned anything,” he said, “it’s that if you stay in business long enough, everything comes full circle.”