SOUTHPORT, England — Hesketh Golf Club’s history is both long and rich.
Founded in 1885, Hesketh is Southport, England’s oldest golf club and, aside from a British Open, has hosted its share of prestigious tournaments. Most recently, Hesketh co-hosted the 2011 British Amateur.
The club is known for more than tournaments, though.
Walk out the clubhouse’s back door and to the right is rooted a twisted and aged fir tree that overlooks the putting green. The tree is not as old as Hesketh, but it does represent a compelling part of the club’s story.
The tree is known as the Hitler Tree, and its origin dates to 1936.
Early that year, Karl Henkell, president of the German Golf Union, visited a number of prestigious eastern U.S. golf clubs — including Augusta National. He left with the idea for an international tournament to be held 10 days after the Berlin Olympic Games in August.
More than 36 countries were invited to the Golfpreis der Nationen (The Golf Prize of Nations) tournament, which was held at the Baden-Baden Golf Club, located about six hours southwest of Berlin. Only six countries — England, France, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands — accepted the Germans’ invitation.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was so interested in the event that he personally commissioned the trophy, a silver-gilded salver inlaid with eight amber discs.
The English Golf Union, which was formed 12 years earlier thanks in part to Hesketh member J. Raynor Batty, sent the two-man team of Arnold Bentley, a Hesketh member, and Tommy Thirsk.
Certainly to Hitler’s delight the German duo of Leonard von Beckerath and CA Helmers held a three-stroke lead through the third round of the 72-hole, stroke-play event. Nationalist hubris likely led German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to call for Hitler to come and present the trophy personally.
Over the final 18 holes, though, the English team rallied to win. Lore is that Ribbentrop scrambled to inform Hitler, who was en route, but ordered his traveling party to turn around and return to Berlin. Henkell presented the first-place trophy to Bentley and Thirsk, along with a gold medal and a small fir sapling to each.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler commissioned the championship trophy for the 1936 Golfpreis der Nationen, which was won by the English team of Arnold Bentley, a Hesketh member, and Tommy Thirsk. The trophy has been displayed at Hesketh Golf Club since 2012 when it put up for auction.
Upon their return, Bentley and Thirsk gave the plate, now known as the Hitler Trophy, to the EGU, who then gave it to Golfer’s Club, a social organization, in 1955. Leonard Sculthorp, who later bought the assets of the Golfer’s Club, exhibited the trophy at the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews from 2000 until 2011, and in May 2012 put it up for auction. Derek Holden, a personal friend of Bentley’s, ultimately outbid the German Golf Archive on behalf of the Hesketh membership. Today, the trophy is prominently displayed in the Hesketh clubhouse.
“The membership is thrilled that the Golfpreis der Nationen trophy is now residing at Hesketh,” said Dave Harrison, a longtime member and past club captain. “It is an important piece of golf history and one Hesketh is proud to have played a part.”
As for the sapling? Well, Bentley, who also won the British Amateur at neighboring Royal Birkdale in 1937, planted his young tree by the putting green outside the clubhouse.
Dove Jones is president of Golf Ink and has been involved in the international golf tourism industry for 25 years.