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

Tommy Thirsk and Arnold Bentley
Courtesy of Derek Holden
Great Britain's Tommy Thirsk [left] and Arnold Bentley rallied on the final day to beat the German team.

Unlike the Olympic Games, which Hitler envisioned as a showcase for the supremacy of his “master race,” (a fantasy laid bare by, among other things, Jesse Owens’s four track-and-field gold medals), the golf event, Schuch says, was hardly the first thing on Hitler’s mind. He signed off on it, but it only mattered to him as a narrow means of populist propaganda.

“Golf at the time in Germany was an aristocratic sport, and Hitler wanted to present himself as a man of the people,” Schuch says. “That’s what his interest in the tournament was. It was a way of showing that he was trying to make an elitist game accessible to the masses.”

Win or lose, that is, it made no difference to him. Just holding the event was enough. Whatever the case, Bentley and Thirsk finished on top, four shots ahead of France -- Germany slipped to a distant third -- and accepted the salver on behalf of the English Golf Union, along with a number of smaller prizes, including a small potted fir tree. Planted behind the flagstaff at Hesketh, the fir became known as the “Hitler Tree,” which, during World War II , club members utilized as an outdoor urinal. Or, as Harry Foster wrote in the book, Annals of the Hesketh Golf Club, “the tree benefited from regular applications of nitrogen enriched surplus water.”

During those same years, Arnold Bentley enlisted in the Royal Air Force but did not see action and, after banging up a couple of biplanes, was posted to Canada where he grew vegetables as part of the war effort.

The Hitler Trophy, meanwhile, did some traveling of its own. Initially the property of the EGU , it was later passed on to the Golfers’ Club, a social organization that relocated its headquarters several times during the ’60s and ’70s, taking the trophy with it on each move. In 1978, its membership declining, the Golfer’s Club was taken over by a British businessman named Leonard Sculthorp, who later dissolved the organization and transferred its memorabilia to his home near Glasgow.

For several years, the Hitler Trophy was reported to have gone missing (a golf “Whodunnit,” the Scotsman declared in 2004), a story that has been refuted by Sculthorp, who told the Daily Telegraph, “I have always been amused by stories about the Hitler Cup going missing. It has been safe in my house in Pollokshields since the mid-90s.”

Today, the salver sits in the Hesketh clubhouse, encased in glass and protected by alarm, after yet another journey that is also something of a story. At the auction, Holden watched as a silent bidder bumped the trophy’s opening price from £9,000 to £9,500. Hesketh countered with £10,000, but the silent bidder responded in turn. Back and forth it went, in £500 increments, the offerings eventually pushed to £15,000, where the bidding ceased. The gavel fell and the auctioneer declared Hesketh the winner. Only later was the other party’s identity revealed: the German Golf Archive, whose budget had run out just before Hesketh’s.

Neither side disputes these details. In the bidding, as at Baden-Baden, the trophy had been won, fair and square, in competition.

Or, as Holden later put it, “England had turned back Germany again.”

 

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