Appeared in 2008 Nov/Dec LINKS
It’s been an Olympics-centric year hereabouts, what with Great Britain finishing a surprising fourth in the medal totals at the recently completed Games in Beijing, with the city of London readying to play host in 2012, and with efforts now afoot to secure the royal and ancient game a slot on the agenda for 2016.
And then there’s the latest arrival to the British Golf Museum here in St. Andrews—a peripatetic little trophy known affectionately as the Hitler Cup.
You see, back in 1936 when Berlin hosted the Summer Olympics, Adolf Hitler envisioned a propaganda blitzkrieg for Germany. One of the Führer’s strategies was to showcase his nation as an international golf power—this despite the fact that Germany had fewer than 50 courses, none of them particularly distinguished, and only a handful of his countrymen were capable of breaking 80.
Since golf was not included on the Olympic roster, Hitler organized a special tournament the week after the Games, inviting two-man teams from 36 countries to compete for a prize that he personally donated—a brass salver about 18 inches wide, inlaid with eight amber disks and engraved with the words: Golfpreis der Nationen, Gegeben von Führer und Reichskanzler (Golf Prize of the Nations, Donated by the Führer and Chancellor).
The event was held in the spa town of Baden-Baden, about 500 miles southwest of Berlin, at a course that measured barely 4,500 yards with a par of 68. In the end, it came down to a shootout among seven nations—Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary and Italy. (It’s unclear why the U.S. was not involved—presumably Hitler, smarting from the Berlin heroics of Jesse Owens, found a way to exclude the Yanks.)
The tournament took place over two 36-hole days, with both players’ scores counting. On the first day, somewhat astonishingly, the German pair surged to a five-stroke lead over England—282 to 287—with France another five strokes back. After the morning of the second day Germany was still ahead, now by three strokes over England.
At that point, high-ranking diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop, who had been watching the action, contacted his boss and said there would be a German victory. Elated, Hitler summoned his chauffeur and set out for Baden-Baden to present the trophy himself.
But the English pair—Tommy Thirsk and Arnold Bentley—had other ideas. Thirsk, a tenacious Yorkshireman, had posted a course-record 65 in the morning and he matched it in the afternoon, vaulting his team to a four-stroke victory over France, as the Germans slumped to third place, 12 strokes behind.
Sensing the grim inevitability of the result, a red-faced von Ribbentrop raced off by car and intercepted the Hitlermobile. When he heard the news, the Führer was furious—he made an about face and headed back to Berlin.
Not surprisingly, the Germans kept no records of the event, and for a while even the trophy got lost. Originally, it was the property of the English Golf Union, which had no permanent home. It was presented, for reasons unknown, to the London-based Golfers Club.
Over the years the Golfers Club suffered hard times, and eventually the club and its assets were sold to a Glaswegian named Leonard Sculthorp, who moved the club to Scotland and into a small clubhouse constructed just outside St. Andrews. But that didn’t work either and in 1996, Sculthorp quietly folded the club and took all the club trophies to his family home in Glasgow.
By this time, no one (except Sculthorp) knew what had happened to the Hitler Cup. Indeed, its whereabouts became the subject of much speculation in the British press, culminating in an article in the Daily Telegraph headlined “Golfers’ Trophy that Upset Hitler Turns up in Glasgow.”
Sculthorp, a member of the New Club in St. Andrews, has now made his prized possession available on loan to the British Golf Museum, that low-slung sandstone building that sits directly behind the R&A clubhouse.
Thirsk and Bentley may not have been Olympic gold medalists, but in turning back Hitler on his home turf, their feat surely was something heroic.