Golf: Heart problem causes Parnevik withdrawal

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WHEN THE World Golf Championships were first suggested, the idea was to get the likes of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia playing against each other more often. This will happen over the next four days at Valderrama, a course with a justified reputation as a severe test and for producing plenty of drama.

But the build-up to the season-ending AmEx World Championship has been more like the What's Going on Championship? The saga of who is and who is not playing in the $5m (pounds 3m) event continued yesterday when the field was reduced to 62 with the withdrawal of John Bickerton, whose eligibility only came about on Tuesday after the withdrawal of Jesper Parnevik.

Yesterday it emerged that Parnevik has been suffering from a heart condition since before the Ryder Cup. He has an irregular heart, is undergoing tests and will not compete again this year. "I don't feel well," Parnevik said from his home in Florida. "I didn't find out about the heart problem until recently but it has been getting worse. It is worst at night and sometimes it feels like I am going to have a heart attack. I am going to take a long rest and will not play again before the start of next season at the earliest."

Ten players have now pulled out but Jose Maria Olazabal, with a bad back, and Retief Goosen, in bed with flu, were still due to tee up this morning. If the WGC have been suffering from teething problems, Bickerton is likely to find out about them in a few months.

Bickerton, whose name probably had not cropped up in discussions to start a series of world tour events, has just enjoyed his best-ever season and the opportunity to play at Valderrama would have represented the pinnacle of his career to date. The 29-year-old from Droitwich won pounds 304,574 after qualifying from the Challenge Tour only a year ago and could have topped that up with anything from pounds 15,000 up to pounds 610,000. But Bickerton's wife, Julie, has been in hospital in Birmingham over the last few days expecting their first child and when the baby had not arrived by yesterday lunchtime, Bickerton decided to remain by her side. His laudable action was, however, news to the European tour, who had already stated unequivocally that the Midlander intended to play.

Neither were officials of the tour aware of the circumstances of Parnevik's withdrawal on Tuesday. Unable now to complete the minimum 11 events, it was announced that the Swede had ceased to be a member of the European tour and was removed from the order of merit. That allowed Bickerton to move up from 21st place to 20th and become eligible.

Under European tour regulations Parnevik, who plays most of his golf in America, may not be able to reapply for membership of the European tour for two years. This, though, is at the discretion of the executive director, Ken Schofield, and as only full tour members are eligible for the European Ryder Cup team, it is safe to say Parnevik, who can also apply for a medical extension, will be returned to that status by 2001 at the latest.

Montgomerie, who has already secured three of his six Order of Merit titles at Valderrama, would rather be here than anywhere else this week. "I am very confident on this course," Monty said. "I have always appreciated the tightness of the drives. I love it when other people think it is tight."

The Scot does not have to worry unless Garcia, Lee Westwood or Goosen wins. "I'm cheering everybody on but those three," he said. Woods, who has won seven of his last 10 events, plays with the Open champion Paul Lawrie, Monty with Davis Love and Garcia with Vijay Singh.

The 19-year-old Garcia played in an amateur match against Scotland at Valderrama but has never played in a tournament here. "It would be special to win my first tournament as a pro in Spain but it will be tough," Garcia said. "I always feel more inspired when playing in a tournament with Tiger Woods but I have been looking forward to this week not just for him but because it is a strong field."