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

Bobby Jones and Karl Henkell
Courtesy of Derek Holden
In 1936, Karl Henkell [right], known as the 'Golf Fuhrer,' visited Augusta National, where he met with club co-founder Bobby Jones [left].

By 1936, as the Olympic Games made their way toward Berlin, Hitler’s Nazi party had solidified its power. Golf was not a part of the Olympic program; it was barely part of the German landscape then. But Hitler, who had never swung a club, was keen to use all sports for propagandist gain. Among the minions he had to do his bidding was Karl Henkell, the so-called “Golf Fuhrer,” president of the German Golf Union. Unlike Hitler, Henkell was a product of a wealthy family, the makers of a well-known German sparkling wine, and was comfortable in country-club surroundings -- so much so that in the spring of 1936, he toured the eastern seaboard of the United States, stopping at a number of prestigious courses, including Augusta National. A photo snapped on the day of his visit shows Henkell standing in the shadow of Augusta’s iconic loblolly pines, in the smiling company of club co-founder Bobby Jones.

Around that time, Henkell had also conceived of a golf tournament, slated to begin 10 days after the Berlin Olympics ended. Billed as the Golfpreis der Nationen (the Golf Prize of the Nations), and dreamed up, Henkell said, in the “spirit of friendship and sportsmanship,” it would feature twoman teams in four rounds of stroke-play competition, with tallies from both players counting toward the final score. A silver box was selected as third prize; a porcelain vase was chosen as the second. The winner’s trophy, commissioned by Hitler, was the silver-and-gilt salver, ornamented with eight amber discs.

Invitations went out to 36 countries, but the majority, including the United States, declined the offer. Though the start of World War II was still three years away, alarming stories had been seeping out of Germany. Golf, of course, was the very least of it, but the game was not immune to Hitler’s grotesque influence. Already, German country clubs were expelling Jews.

Golf Illustrated, a British publication, joined a small chorus of voices urging against England’s participation in the tournament. But the English Golf Union, or EGU , opted to dispatch two players: Arnold Bentley and another stalwart amateur, Tommy Thirsk.

At the start of the event, on August 26, 1936, golfers from seven countries (Germany, England, France, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands) convened in Baden-Baden, a resort town several hours west of Berlin, and home to a short and hilly course. The tournament was broadcast on German radio, and its first two rounds produced a surprising midway score: Germany, represented by Leonard von Beckerath and C.A. Helmers, held a five-stroke lead over second-place England. The following morning, Bentley and Thirsk cut into that margin, but going into the final 18, the Germans remained up by three.

Those, anyway, were the on-course proceedings. What happened off the course is a source of some dispute. In the most common retelling, widely repeated in the British press, the Foreign Minster of Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, on hand at Baden-Baden in Hitler’s stead, sent word of an impending German victory to the Fuhrer, who raced toward the course to present the trophy. Those plans were foiled, however, when the English team staged a final-round charge, forcing Ribbentrop to rush off to intercept his boss.

In Derek Holden’s history of the tournament, Adolf, Arnold & Tommy: Golf and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, news of England’s comeback reportedly cut deep. “Hitler was furious,” Holden writes, “ordering his chauffeur to turn the car round and take him back to Berlin, leaving Karl Henkell to present the trophy.”

That version of events is supported by Bentley’s son, Robert, who told Golf Magazine that he heard his father relay it this way: Hitler “wanted the (expletive) Germans to have it, and as we were in the lead he (expletive) turned back!”

It’s a good story, and it may have happened, but according to Kuno Schuch, a golf historian and director of the German Golf Archives, there is no hard evidence to back it up. Schuch says that he and other archivists have studied documents detailing Hitler’s agenda that day and that nothing indicates that he’d made a sudden beeline for Baden-Baden, only to wheel around when he learned of England’s surge.

Hitler, of course, was not above poor sportsmanship. But, in Schuch’s view, the story of the Fuhrer’s about-face is unlikely (Schuch describes it as “a myth”) and based on the flawed assumption that Hitler had much interest in the tournament’s results.

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