Up the road from the Open: the Hitler Trophy and the Hitler Tree
By David Owen
Hesketh Golf Club is an hour's drive up the Lancashire coast from Royal Liverpool, where the Open is being played. It's near the northern end of the resort town of Southport, and it has an enviable street address:
In 1936, the president of the German Golf Union was a brother-in-law of Joachim von Ribbentrop, who later became the foreign minister of the Third Reich. (Ribbentrop was executed for war crimes in Nuremberg in 1946.) In August, ten days after the close of the Summer Olympics, in Berlin, the golf union held an international tournament at Baden-Baden, in the Black Forest. According to English golf lore, Hitler believed that a German victory would soften the multiple humiliations that Jesse Owens had delivered during the Games. Seven countries participated, each represented by a pair of golfers. The format was 72 holes of stroke play over two days; each team's score was the aggregate score of both its players. The English competitors were Tommy Thirsk, from Ganton Golf Club, and Arnold Bentley, from Hesketh:
After 36 holes, the Germans led by three strokes. According to a recent history by Derek Holden, Hesketh's president, "Ribbentrop rashly notified Hitler that there would be a German victory. Elated, the Fuhrer set out for Baden-Baden to present the trophy to two members of his master race.'" But Thirsk and Bentley dominated the final two rounds, and in the end they beat the Germans by twelve strokes and the French by four. Holden continues: "Ribbentrop then raced off by car to intercept Hitler and break the bad tidings. Hitler was furious, ordering his chauffeur to turn the car round."
The tournament trophy -- a silver-gilt salver inlaid with faceted amber disks that from a distance look like egg yolks -- eventually ended up in private hands, but was put up for auction in 2012. Hesketh acquired it for roughly £20,000, raised from members, after outbidding a German golf organization. Last year, Holden told me that he had been worried, initially, that Hesketh would have to compete in the auction with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which had sent a representative, and with collectors of Nazi memorabilia. But Hesketh prevailed, and the trophy is now displayed in the main grillroom.
Bentley's winnings at Baden-Baden included a small potted fir tree. He gave it to the club, which planted it on a small rise in front of the clubhouse. During the Second World War, members named it the Hitler Tree and used it as a urinal. You can still see it, if you visit Hesketh. (It's now quite large, and is seldom -- but not never -- used as it was during the war.) The course isn't one of the Liverpool area's greatest, but its fourteenth and fifteenth holes are two of my favorites anywhere. Here's the fourteenth, looking back from just beyond the green (with the clubhouse in the middle of the picture and the golf shop on the right, under the flagpole):