A Swing Through Golf Card History: Exploring the 1981 and 1982 Donruss Golf Sets

The 1981 Donruss golf set holds a special place in the hearts of collectors as the first series of cards officially licensed by the PGA that was available to most fans. Donruss followed up that inaugural release with another set in 1982. However, both the 1981 and 1982 sets faced a common challenge – the notorious condition of the cards straight out of the packs. Collectors quickly discovered that the cards’ quality left a lot to be desired, with the 1982 set being slightly worse. And despite the abundance of 1981 wax boxes available on the market, ultra-high-grade cards from this set command higher prices than those from the 1982 set. I suspect it’s the allure of the “rookie card” designation; demand, not supply.

1981 was the year Donruss really tried to put their mark on the hobby. Not only did they kick off their marketing showdown with Fleer and Topps in the baseball card market, but they also released what most collectors consider the first set devoted to golfers. There are some older individual cards of some of the golf legends in the set, but these are the first mainstream cards for players like Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples, and Tom Watson. Donruss was pretty clever in who they included; the set featured the top 60 money winners from the 1980 tour, numbered by rank. They added six leaders category cards too. 

A 66-card set was a bit of an oddity for printers, so 11 cards were short-printed.

1981 Donruss Golf Uncut Sheet

Donruss distributed the 1981 set in 36-count boxes of 7-card packs. BBCE authenticated boxes sell for ~$450, and PSA has graded 204 packs from the set.

1981 Donruss Golf Wax Box
1981 Donruss Golf Wax Pack

From an individual card perspective, PSA has graded what’s to me an astonishing 25k cards from the set. Jack Nicklaus has over 4k graded examples, with the PSA 8s selling for ~$60, PSA 9s selling for between $350-400, and PSA 10s selling for over $5k.

1981 Donruss Golf #13 Jack Nicklaus

The 1982 Donruss set is pretty similar to the 1981 release. It also has 66 cards, including the 60 top money winners from 1991, plus an additional six leaders cards. 

Donruss distributed the 1982 cards in similar 7-card packs; PSA has slabbed 108 of them (about half as many as in 1981). However, today, authenticated 1982 boxes are much tougher to track down than examples from 1981. 

1982 Donruss Golf Wax Box
1982 Donruss Golf Wax Pack

The 1981 set must not have sold as well as expected, so most unopened collectors believe the 1982 Donruss set had a smaller print run than the 1981 set. I don’t see any boxes sold in a recently sold search on eBay; the cheapest “buy it now” is $600. REA sold one in June 2021 for $1080, and you can see in the following image that Collect Auction has sold over 20 1981 Donruss Golf boxes but not a single 82. 

Donruss Golf Boxes Sold by Collect Auctions

The PSA Pop Report count is also substantially lower for 1982 Donruss cards; they’ve slabbed just under 5k, with 600 of those being of Jack Nicklaus. His PSA 8s sell for about $50, 9s $170, and 10s (the last I see being in June 2021) for a little over $2k. So Jack’s 1982 card is scarcer but cheaper.

1982 Donruss GOlf #16 Jack Nicklaus

Both the 1981 and 1982 Donruss cards are notorious for having awful centering out of the pack, with the 1982s being worse than the 81s. A lot of collectors who have opened boxes say that most of the cards out of packs will be “scrap,” but the 1981 set is a little kinder condition-wise than the 1982s. If you open boxes of them, you can only expect a few 10s per box and maybe a handful of 9s. 

We need to take the PSA pop report with a grain of salt here. The grading distributions in the pop report are pretty high (mostly 8s and 9s) because it’s never really been worth submitting off-center or low-grade examples for the set. 

From a book-price perspective, it’s interesting that PSA has such a discrepancy in their guide for these sets. They list commons from 1981 at $2 for 8s, $6 for 9s, $100 for 10s and $2 for 8s, $7 for 9s, and just $30 for 10s in 1982. The Gem Mint 10 discrepancy is interesting since there are so many fewer 1982 cards on the market. I think this is similar to the 1986 and 1987 Fleer basketball sets, where there are a lot more 1986 cards than 87s, but demand is higher. Same for these golf cards, collectors want the 1981 “rookie cards” more than cards from the scarcer 1982 set. 

If you’re not into graded cards, you’re in luck; because so many cards aren’t worth grading, you can pick up raw sets from either year for between $30 and $40.

Despite their popularity among enthusiasts today, neither set must have sold well, as evidenced by the absence of a 1983 Donruss Golf set. Nonetheless, these sets continue to captivate fans of the game…they don’t really have that many other options! Happy collecting, and don’t forget to check out The Post War Cards Newsletter.

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