Arnold Palmer: American Hero a worthy, weighty read | Review

When he met Arnold Palmer in 1981, Martin Davis was early in his writing career while Palmer’s best days as a golfer were behind him.

The 51-year-old Palmer had not lost an ounce of his charisma and congeniality.

Davis was a lifelong fan, but the 30-something scribe was starstruck and eager to enlighten the masses — even the many people with a similar affinity for Palmer.

“As a kid,” Davis said, “it was always Arnie.”

Decades and dozens of books later, Davis has delivered everything Arnie.

“Arnold Palmer: American Hero” is a 372-page tome and tribute to arguably the sport’s most popular figure, whose long-standing PGA Tour stop begins Thursday at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

“I don’t do criticism,” Davis told the Orlando Sentinel. “I do love stories. I mean, where it’s warranted. A story about Arnold, how can it be anything other than a love story?”

Davis’ effort was a labor of love.

He culled through nearly 2,000 photos and settled on around 300 capturing his subject’s movie star looks, aggressive playing style and raw emotion, abiding connection to “Arnie’s Army” and his many relationships, including the special bond with Jack Nicklaus.

“One of the things you can tell I work on hard,” Davis said, “when you’re telling a story I want it to be told visually.”

Davis also elicited essays from 18 contributors, including legends Gary Player and Nancy Lopez.

Four gatefolds with photos and words are featured throughout the book. Elite instructor Jim McLean breaks down Palmer’s distinctive, homemade swing while eight-time PGA Tour winner and putting guru Brad Faxon analyzes Palmer’s wristy yet effective stroke.

One foldout extends to nearly six feet, featuring Palmer’s seven wins with the U.S. Ryder Cup team. A final unfolding pictorial highlights Tiger Woods’ record eight wins at Bay Hill.

Davis devotes around half the book Palmer’s memorable victories, but also some of his crushing defeats.

Among 61 PGA Tour wins, including seven major championships, the stirring come-from-behind win at the 1960 U.S. Open stands alone. Trailing by 7 strokes entering the 36-hole final day, Palmer closed with 65 and famously tossed his visor into the Colorado sky as he celebrated on the 72nd hole.

“That incredible, frenetic comeback, that’s when Arnie became Arnie,” Davis said. “The whole thing about the Sunday charge and everything else — that’s where that whole thing started to grow.”

Palmer also experienced some gut-wrenching collapses, none more than a loss to Billy Casper in the 1966 U.S. Open. Palmer squandered a 7-shot lead during the final nine holes and lost the next day in a playoff.

“That’s a very sad story,” Davis said. “If you look at the pictures, Arnold standing there at the presentation ceremony where Casper is getting the U.S. Open trophy … he was just shocked by what happened.”

Among the many triumphs, a personal favorite for Davis was the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills, where he had a front-row seat as Palmer erased a 6-shot lead to beat a field featuring a who’s who in the sport, including 69-year-old Sam Snead.

“All the big names were there,” Davis recalled. “It was arguably his last charge. It was one of those amazing come-from-behind the Arnold wins.”

Earlier that year, Davis met Palmer for the first time.

While Davis sat at a folding card table he’d erected for the 1981 PGA Merchandise Show, then in Miami Beach, he and Palmer connected simply, succinctly yet impactfully.

Noticing Joe Dye, the longtime executive director of the USGA (1934-69), on the cover of “The Met Golfer,” one of Davis’ publications, Palmer commented, “He’s a great man.”

“I said, ‘Yes. Mr. Palmer he is.'”

Davis knew greatness when he saw it and has the ability to convey it.

“Arnold Palmer: American Hero” is the 39th for Davis through his company The American Golfer. The first, “Ben Hogan: The Man Behind The Mystique,” arrived in 1995.

By then, Davis had had spent 15 years in media and evolved into a noted golf historian. At one point his Sports Marketing Group produced nearly two dozen publications. Davis also contributed to Golf Channel for more than a dozen years.

The American Golfer enterprise has become his sweet spot. Along with two books on Hogan, Davis boasts coffee-table biographies of Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Nicklaus.

Davis, now 76 and splitting time between Greenwich, Conn., and Aiken, S.C., always planned to do a book on Palmer. The timing never seemed to be right.

“I knew Arnold really well,” Davis said. “I knew he was getting sick, and I wanted to wait until he had passed away. And then I had to wait a little while. It wouldn’t have been right.

“It would have been crass.”

Davis’ opus ultimately required four years to produce the proper celebration of the multi-facted Palmer, who beyond his golfing genius was a wildly successful pilot, philanthropist, course architect and businessman.

Davis didn’t cut corners on the 11-inch-by-14-inch book. Printed in Verona, Italy, at a high-end publishing house, its a pristine page-turner.

Checking in at more than seven pounds, the book is not made for a casual perusal and requires a sturdy coffee table.

“I’ve always made a joke about it if you get tired reading it, you can always work out with it,” Davis said.

But a heavy lift on a weighty subject is worth the effort.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at