Editor’s note: This story, which originally published on July 28, is another installment in our annual Best Of The Year series. Throughout December, we will be bringing you the top GGP+ stories of 2022.
LIV Golf has spawned increased usage of the word “sportswashing,” a term of recent vintage (Oxford Dictionary dates it to 2015). So far, the project has backfired. Paying hundreds of millions of dollars to some relevant or recently relevant PGA Tour stars, assorted journeymen, and a couple of promising newcomers, money the Saudis have little chance of recouping, has only highlighted that the kingdom has more cash than common sense.
It hasn’t helped the Saudi cause that far more news about LIV mention the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi than scores from the everybody-gets-a-check, shotgun-start, music-blaring exhibitions. In return for their riches, LIV participants Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, et al., regularly are reminded by the press they are abetting a regime often described as murderous. No scribes have suggested Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ought to be given a parade for finally allowing women to drive cars.
But LIV is not the first attempt at sportswashing through golf. That distinction goes to a regime generally considered far more horrific than the House of Saud: Nazi Germany.
The man responsible for Cotton’s appearance as well as other foreign golfers in Nazi Germany was Karl Henkell, a shadowy figure who was one of the original financiers of the Nazi Party.
In the 1930s, the Nazis used golf in an attempt to burnish their reputation. A measure of success came when Englishman Henry Cotton, winner of the Open Championship in 1934 and 1937 (he would win another in 1948 and later was knighted), was enticed to Bad Ems, Germany, where on August 20, 1939, he won his third consecutive German Open, all after the world was aware of the horrors of Nazism. Twelve days later, on September 1, German tanks rolled into Poland and Great Britain declared war on Germany, a war in which 384,000 British service members and 70,000 citizens would perish.
Remarkably, Cotton entered the German Open without any pushback from the press.
The man responsible for Cotton’s appearance as well as other foreign golfers in Nazi Germany was Karl Henkell, a shadowy figure who was one of the original financiers of the Nazi Party. Despite openly embracing Adolf Hilter, Henkell rose to a position of prominence in international golf. Unlike the Saudis, he did not lavish money on players. Instead Henkell used flattery.
Germany had little in the way of a golf tradition before Henkell. On several visits to the United States, he hobnobbed with the American golf establishment, including Bobby Jones. As the driving force behind the founding of the European Golf Association (an organization that still exists), Henkell paved the way for German stars such as Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer.
Karl Henkell was born April 14, 1888, in Mainz, Germany into a wealthy family that owned a wine and spirits business. He was interested in sports as a child and became an accomplished wrestler, marksman and horseman. When he reached military age, Henkell was a cavalry officer in World War I. In his words, he took up golf at a time when there were few courses in Germany, and those that existed were patronized largely by British businessmen residing in the Fatherland.
Henkell spoke fluent English and became an unabashed Yankophile. He first visited America in 1910 when he was honored by German-Americans at a dinner in New York. During that same trip he made his way to California. A stocky, affable man, Henkell charmed his way into joining the entourage of boxer James J. Jeffries, who was training for his “Fight of the Century” against Jack Johnson. In Santa Cruz, Henkell boldly challenged a noted local professional wrestler, Farmer Burns, to a match. With Jeffries in attendance, Burns quickly disposed of Henkell. “He’s a strong, game fellow,” Burns graciously said after the bout, “but I’ve been making my living at this game.”
With no children, Henkell and his wife, Alice, lavished attention on a niece, Anna. In 1920, Anna married Joachim Ribbentrop, a young wine and spirits merchant from a less prominent family. Ribbentrop’s ability to supply the finest wines at social functions (including to the United States Embassy during Prohibition) allowed him entrée into Berlin society. In 1925, he pretentiously added “von” as a prefix to his surname to give him an air of nobility. Von Ribbentrop befriended Hitler as the Nazi Party ascended to power in the late 1920s. He joined the diplomatic corps, became ambassador to Great Britain, and eventually attained the position of German foreign minister. Through his nephew by marriage, Karl Henkell joined the Nazi Party and was one of its early financial supporters.
Upon Hitler’s ascension in 1933, he (though not a sports fan) embraced athletics as a propaganda tool to attempt to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race. Fortuitously for Hitler and the Nazis, before their takeover, the International Olympic Committee had awarded the 1936 Olympic Games to Berlin. The Nazis established an umbrella organization for sports and physical education, designating a commissioner for gymnastics and sports for the Third Reich. At that time, the Nazis decreed golf a national sport. In recognition of Henkell’s patronage of the Nazi Party and his acquaintance with the game, he was named chief of the German Golf Clubs Union.
“I am very happy to say that our government is doing an enormous work for sport.” – Karl Henkell
Henkell dove into his role with relish, vowing to build new and better golf courses, to make the game accessible to all, and to raise Germany’s golf profile. In Autumn 1933, he traveled to the United States to tour courses in the Northeast and was a guest of renowned architect A.W. Tillinghast at his New Jersey home. Henkell’s October 20, 1933, letter to Tillinghast was published in the November 1933 issue of Golf Illustrated. “You must not think that the links are so far behind in our country; probably our golf of today equals that of your country in 1900, or even a little later,” Henkell wrote. “I am very happy to say that our government is doing an enormous work for sport.”
In Golf Illustrated, Henkell also described a handicap method in vogue in his home country called bindfaden (German for string or twine). Depending on the player’s ability, he would start out with a roll of string of a certain length, and could improve his position on the course by moving the ball and cutting the string. For instance, if a ball landed in a bunker, and moving the ball 4 feet would give the player a lie in the fairway, the player would cut 4 feet off the string roll and play from the fairway without penalty. The process could be repeated (such as by moving a putt 6 inches from the cup into the hole) until the allocated string was gone. Needless to say, bindfaden did not catch on.
The Henkells’ early visit to the U.S. was sponsored by Werner Von Clemm, a relative of von Ribbentrop residing in the States. At the time, Nazi Germany’s economy was almost entirely focused on rearmament, by means that contravened the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. With non-military government funds scarce, the 1933 junket and later junkets likely were motivated by considerations other than just international goodwill through golf. In 1942, Von Clemm, a naturalized American citizen, would be convicted in New York of conspiring to fence diamonds stolen by the Nazis.
On March 27, 1934 – before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, which removed German citizenship rights from Jews and other minorities – the New York Times published a letter to the editor from Henkell, sent in response to a Times article about golf in Germany. “It is greatly appreciated that a country so important in the world of golf as America should take an interest in Germany’s small contribution to the game,” Henkell wrote, demonstrating an obsequiousness that would become his hallmark. “Any American golfer coming to Germany will find a country full of new enthusiasm and ideas but also the opportunity to follow the royal and ancient game under homeland conditions. The Deutscher Golf Verband and all its clubs will extend the heartiest of welcomes to all its American visitors.”
By early 1935, the Nazis’ brutality against Jews was well-documented. Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the Amateur Athletic Union, called for a boycott of the Berlin Olympics. A March 1935 poll showed 43 percent of Americans favored that idea. In 1934, Avery Brundage of the American Olympic committee had gone on a fact-finding trip to Germany and reported that he was satisfied there was no discrimination against Jewish athletes.
Henkell amped up his charm offensive. In March 1935, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Henkell had congratulated Prescott S. Bush (father and grandfather of future U.S. presidents) on his election to the presidency of the USGA and announced that the 1936 German Open and amateur championships would be held in Berlin immediately before the Olympic Games. “Preparations have been made to hold important international team matches,” Henkell stated. “Germany seeks the cooperation of the two great golf countries.”
The article noted Bush and R&A Secretary Henry Gullen “most casually mentioned the subject” and “dropped it like a hot stove lid, but probably would not prohibit its members from playing in Berlin.” It further noted that Hitler might offer money. “But then again,” the article continued, “winning money might be simple for visitors, but there exists, at this moment, anyway, some difficulty in getting it out of Germany.”
In March 1936, Henkell traveled again to the United States with an entourage, ostensibly to look at golf courses. The Palm Beach Post reported they were embarking on “an extended tour of the South where they will inspect golf courses with a view to adopting American methods in designing courses in their homeland.” The Asheville Citizen-Times noted that 14 German golf enthusiasts, including Henkell, visited the Asheville Country Club. “We are deeply impressed with the hospitality here and our stay has been a most enjoyable one,” said Henkell. “Of course, we did not come here to play golf, but to study courses, construction of greens and the operation of tournaments, in addition to the many other things connected with courses and the game itself.”
On March 13, 1936, Henkell and his entourage met with Bobby Jones in Atlanta. “It was a great two-day stay and words in German or English cannot adequately express our appreciation and thanks for the opportunity of playing both East Lake and the Capital City Club courses,” Henkell told The Atlanta Constitution. “Our reception here was great and the chance to meet and converse with Jones, the greatest of all golfers, and who is idolized the world over, when it comes to golf, was far more than we anticipated.”
The 1936 visit to America came on the heels of Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland in direct contravention of the terms Germany had accepted after World War I. Henkell professed his fealty to Hitler and disputed the notion that a European war was imminent. “Russia perhaps would like to engage in conflict, but not Germany, not France, not Italy, and most of all not England,” he was quoted in The Atlanta Constitution. “Herr Henkell said he considered himself a close friend of Hitler and a staunch supporter of the reichsfuehrer,” the newspaper continued. Henkell sensed a sympathetic audience in the Deep South. “We Germans are not used to being bossed by negroes and of course there is some resentment to the fact that practically all of France’s troops along our borders are black,” he said.
High on Henkell’s agenda in 1936 was enlisting American participation in an amateur competition at Baden Baden to be held immediately after the close of the Summer Olympics. “First prize for the victorious two-man golf team from the winning nation will be a handsomely engraved silver bowl presented by Chancellor Hitler,” Henkell told the Charleston Daily Mail.
In August 1936, in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Olympics, iconic sportswriter Grantland Rice penned a disturbingly laudatory column. “Germany put out the greatest national effort ever seen in sport to make this last Olympics rival all others in the way of crowds, enthusiasm and pageantry,” Rice wrote. “Only government control and direction could’ve made this possible, but there is no doubting the amazing interest of the crowds and the continuation of this interest for the future.” Rice asked Henkell about the American track and field team. “We knew this team was good and should win, but we expected no such brilliance as [track star Jesse] Owens and others showed,” Henkell said, parroting the veneer of goodwill ordered from the Nazi hierarchy in advance of the games. “Especially Owens, who was beyond all words.”
Henkell got over the embarrassment at Baden Baden and spearheaded a new project, the formation of the European Golf Union. In November 1936, a group met in Luxembourg, and the following year Henkell was elected vice president.
Henkell’s sportswashing campaign was dealt a blow when Golfpreis Der Nationen (Golf Prize of the Nations), held after the Olympics, flopped. Despite Henkell’s entreaties, the United States did not participate. Only six of the 36 invited nations sent a team to Baden Baden to compete with Germany. They were England, France, Holland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. With its best amateurs en route to America to play in the Walker Cup at Pine Valley, England sent the duo of Tommy Thirsk and Arnold Bentley to the Black Forest.
Showing Henkell’s efforts to grow the game in his home country were bearing some fruit, the German team of Leonard von Beckerath and C.A. Hellmers led the watered-down competition by three shots going into the final round. Von Ribbentrop, who was at the tournament, summoned Hitler to Baden Baden so he could present the trophy to the Germans. However, with Thirsk in the midst of a record-breaking round of 65, the German team faltered. Upon being so notified, Hitler turned his motorcade around, and Henkell presented the trophy to the winning Englishmen.
Henkell got over the embarrassment at Baden Baden and spearheaded a new project, the formation of the European Golf Union. In November 1936, a group met in Luxembourg, and the following year Henkell was elected vice president. In the February 21, 1938, Evening Standard, a young Henry Longhurst wrote:
Some time ago, there was a proposal to form a sort of Federation of European Golf Unions. The prime mover in the scheme was Karl Henkell, the highly efficient dictator of golf in Germany. Herr Henkell is an interesting man. Robust and rubicund, he drives a super-charged Mercedes, and in a martial, disciplined manner, that is more popular in Germany, perhaps, than over here, enjoys life to the full.
He makes champagne by the millions down in Wiesbaden and is, incidentally, the uncle of the former Ambassador to Great Britain, Herr von Ribbentrop.
So long as the European Golf Association confines itself to its declared intentions, it will have, for what it’s worth, my cordial support.
In 1938, Henkell made another voyage to the United States. In New York he called on USGA President Archibald M. Reid before traveling to St. Louis for an extended stay. In 1937, Henkell had purchased a 52 percent interest in the American Wine Company, based in St. Louis, perhaps hedging his bets against a day when Germany would be on the losing side of a European war the United States would sit out, and thus have his assets in Germany confiscated.
He was profiled in the March 16, 1938 edition of the St. Louis Star and Times. “A middle-aged man of impressive bearing, Henkell arrived at Union Station from the east yesterday,” the article observed. “He is ruddy-complexioned to an extreme and as excitable and vivacious as any Frenchman.” As usual, Henkell was loquacious and not shy about his connection to Hitler.
Forgetting that in 1933 he had rated the state of golf in Germany to have been like America’s in 1900 (or betraying that all along golf was not as important to him as he professed) Henkell said, “I should say we are at the same stage your people were in the 1890s.”
In fact, espionage was on Henkell’s St. Louis agenda, which was not revealed until 1944. He appeared unannounced at the office of Walter Knight, a structural engineer and designer of streamlined river boats. Henkell told Knight he represented a steamship company and was aware that Knight’s designs were far advanced. He asked Knight for copies of blueprints, saying he was not permitted to pay for professional talent outside of the Third Reich, but offered to put a plaque in Knight’s honor on the German boats. Knight rejected Henkell’s clumsy proposal.
After leaving St. Louis, Henkell traveled to Atlanta to pay a return visit to Bobby Jones, who met with him in 1936 on a European trip. Four years later, when he was 40, after initially being declared 4F, Jones talked his way into a commission. He served with distinction as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, and landed at Normandy on June 7, 1944, D-Day Plus One.
In July 1938, English newspapers reported Henkell was the non-playing captain of a German team that played members of clubs at Deal and Sandwich in England. There is no record of Henkell ever having played a round of competitive golf.
By August 1939, Germany was preparing to invade Poland with whom Great Britain had a defense pact. Only the rosiest of optimists believed the “peace for our time” promised by Neville Chamberlain at Munich in September 1938 would hold. Nevertheless, sport continued.
“Who said we are going to have war?” asked the Louisville Courier-Journal on August 4. “Henry Cotton, British golf ace, has been invited to defend his German Open title at Bad Ems August 19 and 20 – and has accepted.” A dual track meet in Cologne between England and Germany proceeded as scheduled later in the month.
In mid-August, Englishman Harry Bentley (brother of Arnold Bentley, co-victor at Golfpreis Der Nationen) won the German amateur championship for the third time in four years, defeating G.B. Ward of New Zealand. He was asked by Henkell if he wanted to take the trophy home with him. “Certainly,” Bentley replied. “There may be a war before long.” Henkell replied that war was out of the question. “I’ll take it all the same,” Bentley added. “Then if you win you’ll get it back anyway. And if we win, I will keep it.”
Cotton won the German Open at Bad Ems by 11 strokes over Georg Bessner of Germany. Belgian stalwart Flory Van Donck was six shots further back in fourth place. Cotton planned to take his trophy, but he could not fit it in his car.
There would be no more tournament golf in Europe for seven years.
Henkell’s sportswashing came to an end. On February 10, 1944, Henkell was killed in an Allied bombing raid on his hometown of Wiesbaden. He was 55. His interest in the American Wine Company was sold to Americans.
On October 16, 1946, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Henkell’s Nazi benefactor, was the first of the Nuremberg defendants hanged for wartime atrocities.
A remnant of Henkell’s sportswashing effort is that today, the European Golf Federation, which he co-founded in 1937 with the endorsement of the venerated Henry Longhurst, has 50 member countries. It arranges and coordinates amateur golf competitions throughout the continent.
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