"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. 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.