Golf trading card business is in need of a mulligan

While the trading card industry is enjoying a resurgence, the golf category has never really caught on — partly because of the sport's individual nature

Golf Cards 2023
Despite their immense popularity, cards for Tiger Woods, left, and Jack Nicklaus, right, draw little interest. The Bryson DeChambeau 2021 Upper Deck SP Authentic Employee Exclusive Future Watch Autograph card can be had on eBay for $199.

Kendall Loyd has owned Orlando Sportscards for 33 years and accumulated an estimated 30 million trading cards at his retail store and two processing warehouses.

Located in one of the nation’s golfing hotbeds, Loyd is proud to say his Orlando, Florida, store has a selection of 400,000 golf cards. Don’t expect to see many of them on the shelves though. Most sit in cardboard boxes collecting dust as adults and kids alike are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for vintage baseball or Pokemon cards but have little or no interest in collecting golf cards.

Even for five bucks.

Loyd said he can go months at a time without any customer asking if he has any golf cards of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer for sale.

"I know, sad, isn’t it?" he says. "This is bad to say but the last time there was any interest (in golf trading cards) was when Tiger was in that car accident, so I broke out some of my golf boxes, which was primarily Tiger stuff."

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred renewed interest in trading cards. MarketDecipher.com, a market research and consultancy firm, reports that trading cards on eBay grew 1.5 times in 2020, with more than 4 million more cards sold than in 2019. Soccer (a 1,500% increase) and basketball (370%) saw the most significant growth among sports cards. And 98% of sports memorabilia collectors now includes trading cards in its collections, the site added.

Loyd sold a few items — all Tiger products — before the cards were once again relegated to mothball status in favor of products that move the meter.

"Something has to change in golf," Loyd says. "It’s the same with racing cards since Dale Earnhardt passed away — there’s just not that bad guy out there. Golf needs somebody who is, well, kind of out there, you know somebody like a John Daly, but someone who is actually on the PGA Tour."

Payne Stewart Card
This autographed Payne Stewart card is from the 1990 Pro Set.

Tom Stewart, the longtime owner of Old Sport & Gallery memorabilia store in the Village of Pinehurst, North Carolina, has seen a similar fate with the few golf cards he still has on hand among his more than 10,000 vintage items. His autographed Payne Stewart (no relation) card sits in a crowded display case between two more formidable collectables — a signed Ben Hogan golf ball and a set of Masters cufflinks.

Stewart’s asking price for the rare Stewart piece is $750. When asked how many customers have inquired about the card over the last few years he placed his fingers together to form a big zero.

"You know, every kid used to play baseball and we collected cards, we traded them and if I had two Al Kaline cards I may trade you one for Cal Ripken, but while Tom Kite and Scott Verplank are great guys nobody cares about their cards or wants to trade them," Stewart says.

In fact, it’s ironic that the Stewart card isn’t even a golf card. Instead its part of the NFL’s Pro Set collection series that featured the late golfer who would often dress up in the team colors of the NFL city in which he was teeing it up.

D.J. Kazmierczak, senior vice president of operations for Panini America Inc., one of the leaders in the sports card world, has a pulse on the golf trends from a manufacturing point of view.

He points out that rival card company Upper Deck has had an exclusive deal with Woods, by far the biggest name in the sport for two decades, making it difficult for other card manufacturers to cobble together a set without the game’s top draw.  

"Who would want to go into the golf card business without Tiger Woods?" Kazmierczak says. "It would be like doing a basketball card set back in the day without Michael Jordan."

So unlike Major League Baseball, the National Football League and National Hockey League, in which card manufacturing deals are struck with the unions and numerous sets and brands are in play each year — which in turn fuels interest within the card collecting hobby — golf cards have been in a holding pattern. That’s because golfers are independent contractors who can negotiate their own cards deals.

"So to build a golf set you literally have to go and do individual deals with every single golfer," Kazmierczak says. “Logistically, that makes it a challenge. But you could still do it if it was worth it."

That’s where golf as a sport often falls short, with some built in roadblocks to card collecting interest. Remember, golf is approximately 125 players where team sports like baseball have fielded card sets at 750 or more.

Golf is also not a team sport, so kids don’t grow up rooting for a "golf team," only individual players who may or may not remain popular in mainstream card collecting. 

"The team sport part absolutely plays a role in it because I even have people that come in my store specifically from Canada and all they want is hockey cards from Montreal or Toronto players, or Canadian players," Loyd says. "I don’t see that with golf because you can't have a team. I don't have anybody that comes in asking if I have any Puerto Rican golf cards, but I do have special boxes for Puerto Rican baseball players and Venezuelan players because people collect them."

And then there is arguably the main reason for the lack of interest in the golf card world, according to Kazmierczak.

"There’s not a ton of turnover in the sport," he said. "There isn’t an influx of steady rookies every year like there is in the NBA or NFL. Rookie cards are what drive any trading card category. It’s the same challenge I have when I'm building a NASCAR product."

That’s where most, if any golf cards take up space in hobby shops — cobbled together on a single shelf next to the WWE wrestling and NASCAR cards. Heck, professional soccer gets more billing in card shops than golf cardboard.

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The Tiger Woods 2001 SP Authentic Stars Autograph Gold.

There has also been a lack of consistency for potential collectors. There were no golf cards available for almost a decade before Upper Deck released three products in 2021 — SP Authentic, Artifacts and SP Game Used.

The new product wasn’t met with excitement but mixed reviews. The biggest roadblock was a high price point that most of the time excluded the beginning collector.

The most expensive golf card ever sold has been the Tiger Woods 2001 SP Authentic Stars Autograph Gold 100 PSA graded 10 for $336,000. But only two other golf cards have ever cracked the six-figure mark. Compare that to the most expensive baseball, football or Pokemon cards ever sold and it’s not even close.

A rare Pokemon card — the Pikachu Illustrator — has sold for $5.275 million, while a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $12.6 million and a 2017 Patrick Mahomes Panini National Treasures Platinum autographed, one-of-one rookie football card was purchased at $4.3 million.

Sorry Tiger.

Kazmierczak didn’t rule out his company taking a stab at a golf product — maybe starting with European players since his company is Italian-based — down the road now that Tiger’s injuries have pretty much taken him off the fairways and greens for now, somewhat muting his popularity.   

"I know with our strength in our portfolio brands we could build some very compelling products," Kazmierczak says. "It's just the licensing is a freaking nightmare trying to get everybody you need. And that was before PGA and LIV Golf decided to start fighting together on top of it.

"It's really difficult because when you get into the negotiations with the golfers they play off of each other. They want to know what you're paying this guy or that guy. It’s funny for a sport that, you know, seems gentlemanly and all that, those guys are as competitive as anybody."