- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gerald C. Barton has been a lot nicer to Washington than Washington ever was to Gerald C. Barton.

The federal government gave the Oklahoma-born Mr. Barton, the developer of such golfing crown jewels as Kiawah Island, Oak Tree Golf Club, PGA West and La Quinta, a nightmarish decade-plus of grief, lawsuits and deep financial hardship.

“I lost $100 million in one day,” the courtly, white-haired Mr. Barton recalls.

In return, Mr. Barton has given Washington Lake Presidential. The 18-hole, 7,230-yard course built on a former Maryland tobacco farm in Prince George’s County officially opened in May and is already playing to rave reviews. A prime piece of land in an often overlooked part of the D.C. suburbs, Lake Presidential Golf Club looks and plays as if it has been there for decades, with 100-foot-high tulip poplars and sycamores lining impeccably tended fairways, a 30-acre lake and a rolling but walkable topography that makes for a string of interesting, challenging holes. In an election year, the comparison of this contender to the rest of the field is perhaps inevitable.

“This may be the only Presidential newcomer of ‘08 that everyone agrees on,” raved Golf Magazine.

“I’ll go as far as to say this layout is at least as good as any in the entire state, with the lone exception of spectacular Bulle Rock,” according to one early Internet review of the course.

As is often the case with Washington intrigues, the early history is at least as deep and interesting as the present reality. In an interview over lunch at Lake Presidential’s 11,000-square-foot clubhouse, the 77-year-old Mr. Barton strikes one as a man who doesn’t carry a grudge.

So let’s carry it for him.

It’s a story at once deeply complex and brutally simple. The feds, facing a financial market implosion in the early 1980s as S&Ls; began failing left and right, asked Mr. Barton and other developers for help. Barton’s Landmark Land Co., already established as among the country’s top-drawer golf course and resort developers, made the fatal mistake of agreeing, buying a bankrupt savings bank and saving the government millions in the process.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when the S&L; industry collapsed in earnest and the government found itself facing a bailout bill of at least a couple of hundred billion dollars or so - real money back in those innocent days. Congress was on the warpath, the press was baying for blood and the regulators decided to take out their frustrations on … Jerry Barton.

A toe-curling 11-page spread in Business Week in 1999 details how government regulators essentially hounded Mr. Barton into insolvency, forcing him to sell off his prize properties at a fraction of their market price. The legal and public relations problems put intense pressure on Mr. Barton’s company, which he had always prided for running like a family. The bottom line, upheld in a series of subsequent court decisions, was that the U.S. government drove an honest and prosperous business into the ground as absolution for its own sins.

“The United States has not acted in a manner worthy of the great nation it is,” one judge wrote in awarding Mr. Barton’s company minor restitution for its immense losses.

“When the bottom fell out, all our momentum stopped,” Mr. Barton now recalls. “We won in every court, but that didn’t mean that much. We had to put it all back together again.”

A go-getter from the get-go, the man who ran 17 rental properties to finance his way through the University of Oklahoma began reassembling the pieces at an age when most guys are comfortably into their Social Security check-cashing years. The company, relocated to Upper Marlboro in the mid-1990s, managed to retain virtually all of its top talent despite the financial meltdown and the move across country to the Washington suburbs.

“If I am most proud of any one thing, it’s that 10 of our top 12 executives from 20 years ago are still with the company,” says Mr. Barton. Many stayed on at half-pay through the grimmest years. As for his own motivation in starting over, Mr. Barton says simply, “I’ve always found that making money is a lot more fun than spending it.”

The developer makes building world-class courses and resorts seem as natural as falling off a log, but he is clearly a keen student of a game that, remarkably, he has never played in his life. (Pressed on why he refrained from even playing a single hole at such gems as Kiawah and La Quinta, he replies, “By now I’m like the 70-year-old virgin. At this point, the experience wouldn’t be worth losing a good story.”)

Working with a Texas developer, Landmark Land began exploratory work for Lake Presidential in the mid-1990s, but it would be another decade and more than a dozen hearings before a cautious Prince George’s County Council, before the golfing residential project finally got the green light. Mr. Barton acknowledges that most high-end course developers wouldn’t look at “Pee-Gee” when more upscale ZIP codes were calling in counties to the north, west and south of the city.

“There was some skepticism about this market, no question about it,” he says, “but I think it will turn out to be our greatest advantage. People don’t realize it, but we’re 30 minutes from the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, the heart of the lobbyist community. We’re 14 miles from the Capitol - going against rush-hour traffic - and Annapolis is just down the road.”

When Landmark first settled on the Washington area, Mr. Barton thought “D.C. was the most underserved market for high-quality golf in the country.”

“We thought it would take us two or three years to get permission to build, but it ended up taking up 10,” he says.

In that decade, the greater Washington market saw a bumper crop of upscale daily-fee courses come on the market. In recent years, an equally sizable number of golf projects has been taken off the drawing board, victims of a slowing economy, trouble in the housing market and a perceived local golfing glut. Naturally, Mr. Barton doesn’t see it that way.

“Yes, the market overall is very soft. But there’s always room at the top,” he says with a smile. That might sound like bragging if you didn’t have Landmark’s track record. Mr. Barton notes that when he was building Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, the South Carolina island resort already had three championship courses boasting big-name designers and underwhelming profit margins.

“It was a dead island when we came in,” he says. “I thought the problem wasn’t the island, but the fact that nobody had yet built a course good enough to make people want to come and play. So that’s what we did.”

The result of such contrarian thinking was a smashing financial and aesthetic success, one chosen to host a most memorable Ryder Cup in 1991 and one picked as the site for the 2012 PGA Championship.

In addition to his long-serving management team, which includes former PGA of America CEO Jim L. Awtrey, Landmark’s senior vice president for business development, Lake Presidential has been able to recruit well locally, too. Head pro Nathan Presnal was lured away from the Chevy Chase Club, and a number of Lake Presidential top staffers were recruited from other top-line area courses.

“That’s just one more marketing benefit for us,” says Mr. Barton. “When Nathan comes here from Chevy Chase, the people that knew him there feel they have to come down and see what the attraction is.”

The proximity of good airports was key as Mr. Barton sees Landmark’s near-term future developing courses in the Caribbean and Europe, particularly Central Europe. Landmark has already made a splash overseas with the award-winning Doonbeg Golf Club in County Clare, Ireland, and Spain’s Arcos Gardens, and the buzz is already strong for the new Apes Hill Club in Barbados.

Landmark courses have hosted Ryder Cups, PGA Championships and Senior PGA Championship tournaments, and Mr. Barton thinks Lake Presidential has the potential to host similar events. But he draws the line at the biggest majors, saying the honor would not be worth the consequences for his layout.

“To put 30,000 people on this property to watch a golf event, we’d have to cut back a lot of trees to accommodate them,” he says. “There’s enough room otherwise, but we won’t do it. It’s not worth the sacrifice.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide