By Darren Rovell
Wednesday, April 11

While Tiger Woods is the hottest golfer in the world right now, and maybe ever, there is something that might be hotter – two Woods rookie cards on the collectibles market.

Just as Woods won his fourth consecutive major championship with his second Masters title in four years Sunday, two of Woods' rookie cards – the 1996 Sports Illustrated for Kids insert card and the 1997 Masters card by Grand Slam Ventures – are arguably the most coveted pieces of cardboard in the industry.

 Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods tops the golf world, and the sports collectibles world.
One Masters card sold for $40,000. The SI for Kids card? A record $125,000.

And with Woods' latest victory, the price on these gem-mint cards are expected to continue to skyrocket.

"If I knew that Tiger was going to win it (Sunday), I wouldn't have sold that card," said Mike Souza, who cashed in on his gem-mint SI for Kids card in an online auction in early March. "I didn't think he could win like that again. ... I just wish I had the card back because who's to say what it would go for now?"

Five years ago, most people might have predicted a baseball or basketball player to grace the front of the industry's hottest card in 2001. But combine the success of Woods and the word "scarcity," and the unbelievable has become a reality.

"Who would have thought that – in 1996 – we'd be talking about the hottest card with a golfer on it?" said Sean Skeffington, vice president of operations for Sports Card Guaranty (SGC), a New Jersey-based grading company.

But like so many high-priced cards before it, the higher the dollar figure, the more the controversy. Not since the 1984-85 Michael Jordan STAR rookie card – which carried a similarly astronomical price tag before questions surrounding the number of production runs sent its value into a NASDAQ-like nosedive years later – have cards been so scrutinized.

Scrutinized to the point that industry insiders now are asking themselves: Are these cards even meant to be cards?

Stop the grading
In recent weeks, Sports Illustrated has sent letters to various card grading companies requesting it cease grading of the 1996 SI for Kids card.

Evan Thompson, a senior grader at Beckett Grading Services, said his company received the letter in which SI claimed the cards were never meant to be circulated as collectibles. Beckett, known as one of the toughest graders in the industry, has honored the magazine's request and has been returning the cards to their owners.

"It's our position that the cards are part of the editorial content and were never meant to be trading cards," said a spokesperson for SI for Kids, who asked not to be identified.

Fewer than 1,000 SI for Kids cards have been graded among the major card grading companies and only a few have rated a gem mint, according to the population reports from three top grading companies. Chris Ivy, head card trader at Heritage Coin Galleries in Dallas, said he has sold 50 of the cards since October, including one – a Beckett-graded 9 – for $18,500.

If I knew that Tiger was going to win it (Sunday), I wouldn't have sold that card. I didn't think he could win like that again. ... I just wish I had the card back because who's to say what it would go for now?
Mike Souza, who sold a gem-mint Sports Illustrated for Kids Tiger Woods rookie card for a record $125,000 in early March

Despite the relatively large circulation of the magazine, Ivy said there are many factors that make this the more valuable card.

"There are people that threw the magazine out," Ivy said. "Then there are mailmen who folded the magazine and Woods is the center card, so if it was folded at any time the Woods card is ruined."

The thin paper stock and the bleeding of the other surrounding yellow cards onto the blue Woods card also make an ideal card tough to find, he said.

The Souza-sold card is believed to have been the highest price ever paid for a card produced since 1952. More than a mint-graded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, which sold for $121,000. And more than a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card, hocked for $100,050, according to Pro Sports Authenticator (PSA), which graded the cards.

Cole Bartiromo, a Woods collector from California, said he will be selling at least one of his two gem-mint SI cards. One is the lone SI card graded a Beckett 9.5, while the other -- which he put on auction last week -- was graded a PSA 10. He said the winning bid of $125,199.99 was retracted, but claims he has been offered as much as $400,000 for the card. Bartiromo said he would be willing to sell it to Tiger if he wants it.

Meanwhile, collectors and other grading companies alike say they are confused by SI's recent action.

"I don't understand SI's position," Souza said. "They obviously meant for kids to tear them out as collectibles and they've been torn out as collectibles."

PSA president Steve Rocchi said he has not received SI's letter. But should he, Rocchi said his company will not stop grading them.

"Who are they to discern if they should be graded or not," Rocchi said. "It's editorial content because that's how they might get away with printing cards without having to pay a royalty to Tiger Woods."

The cutting edge
The Masters card controversy has been brewing for a longer period of time.

As the SI for Kids card, it remains unclear how many Masters cards – found in sets and sheets believed to have been made over a period of three years – were produced by the small company and remain in circulation now.

The Masters card is considered a "perpetual" rookie issue. That is, it is the same Woods card that has appeared in various forms between 1997 and 1999. Novice collectors, despite spending thousands for the card, might know little about the card's complex history.

Grand Slam Ventures has produced The Masters card set since the early '90s, ending runs in 1999. Collectors took little notice when the company signed Woods to a licensing deal. It allowed Grand Slam to use his name and image for the set after Woods won The Masters in 1997.

The card shows Woods in his Sunday red, leaning on his club. The same card from a later printing appeared when Masters champions Mark O'Meara and Jose Maria Olazabal were added to the set in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

Hundreds of collectors ordered as many sheets from the 1999 poster-like printing as they could – for just $125 apiece. The sheets were ideal for those hoping to sell a gem-mint, top-graded card. Simply cut the card to size, grade it and then sell it at top dollar.

It is apparent that is what some collectors have done.

That has been a point of contention between two rival card grading companies. SGC, which grades 40,000 cards monthly, has graded more than 12,000 Tiger Woods rookie cards from Grand Slam. Of those cards, approximately 23 percent were from the original 1997 set. However, the higher graded cards likely come from the 1999 sheet, an executive from a competing company said.

As of Monday afternoon, SGC graded 2,122 cards of the 1997 Woods cards, according to company population reports. Thirty percent of them graded at 92 (near mint/mint plus) or higher.

But SGC also graded 9,287 1997-99 Woods cards – which could have been sheet cut – in which 81 percent graded out at 92 or higher.

But PSA's Rocchi said SGC is creating an artificial market for the card by grading cards punched out of uncut sheets. PSA will not grade the cards that could have been cut from sheets, apparent by the faded colors and gold foil that looks more like orange.

"Those cards were never meant to be cards," Rocchi said. "They were meant to be framed and what they are doing is taking the real population and fooling with it. When these graded cards are sold, the buyers have no clue that what they have bought is a card that has been cut off from a sheet, unless grading companies are actually saying that they are from a sheet."

As far as the card's scarcity, not many collectors have a clue about how many are in circulation.

"People are getting caught in the hype of all of this, and they are paying $3,000 for (what they think is) an 'original' rookie card," said Thomas Martinez, a Web site designer from Houston who pulled 15 Tiger Woods cards from their original 1997 packs. "What they are really getting is getting taken advantage of by the sellers of this card."

By the time collector Tom Loveless found out about the card's history, he already had spent $1,480 for two cards with a SGC 96 grading.

"When I found out, my stomach started to sink, knowing dealers could purchase these sheets and have them cannibalized for the Tiger card," Loveless said. "I knew my investment was down the toilet."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for, can be reached at HELP | ADVERTISER INFO | CONTACT US | TOOLS | SITE MAP
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