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

July 10, 2013

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.

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.

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.”