"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."