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The Hitler Invitational: Inside Adolf Hitler's 1936 golf tournament

Adolf Hitler Baden-Baden
Hitler: Getty Images; Baden-Baden Golf Club: Stefan Von Stengel
Adolf Hitler sponsored the Golfpreis der Nationen at the Baden-Baden Golf Club in 1936.

Late last spring, a retired British businessman named Derek Holden found himself sitting in an English auction house, gazing at displays of musty golf memorabilia: hickory clubs, vintage leather bags. An avid golfer but not a collector, Holden had no interest in those humdrum offerings. Like the British press, which had turned word of the auction into headline news, he had eyes for just one item: a silver-and-gilt salver, inlaid with amber, crafted by a noted German goldsmith in the run-up to World War II.

Exhibited in a glass case on the auction floor, the salver was the prime catch in the catalog that day, the starting bid for it pegged at £9,000. As Holden realized, though, money was only a small measure of its worth. The salver, after all, was a unique sports memento, commonly referred to as “the Hitler Trophy.” Awarded only once, in Nazi Germany, in 1936, it had gone to a pair of English golfers who’d vanquished two of Adolf Hitler’s most accomplished players, along with teams from six other countries, in a tournament sponsored by the Fuhrer himself.

For years, the trophy was reported missing, but now it had resurfaced. Holden’s familiarity with its story owed to his friendship with one of its winners: Arnold Bentley, a decorated amateur and longtime member of Hesketh Golf Club in northwest England, where Holden also belonged. Before Bentley’s death in 1998, Holden had played countless rounds with him and had known him as a placid, modest man, disinclined to trumpet his own triumphs, which included a win at the British Amateur Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1937. But he’d also seen Bentley grow “apoplectic” over error-filled accounts of Hitler’s tournament.

To set the record straight, Holden had produced his own history of the tournament, a self-published booklet intended, he wrote, to dispel “myths and mystery” while underscoring the “extraordinary achievement” of which his friend had been a part.

Then, last spring, when the salver turned up at auction following a long, migratory journey, Holden saw a chance to honor Bentley further. With a collection taken up from fellow Hesketh members, he lit out for the bidding, bent on delivering the Hitler Trophy to the club that he regarded as its rightful home.

“I know that Arnold would have been the first to downplay his own role in the tournament,” Holden says. “But I believe it would have pleased him to know that the trophy would wind up where it belonged.”

Though Holden emphasized that his interest in the trophy was “historical, not political,” not every Hesketh member agreed to kick in for it, uneasy as they were with the memories it stirred. Their reluctance underscored how difficult it was to separate the salver from the dark period in which the tournament was born.

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