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Tiger leaves 'fifth major' to be with father in cancer fight

Tiger Woods forsook his final practice round at the Players' Championship to fly back to his home state of California yesterday to be with his sick father, Earl. The 73-year-old, who was so influential in spotting, developing and guiding the game's most extraordinary talent, has been fighting a relapse of prostate cancer for more than two years.

Obviously the news cast a huge shadow over the final preparations for the so-called "fifth major" as the field, the organisers, and seemingly the whole of the Florida awaited news. Even a statement that it is the 30-year-old's intention to take part in today's first round did not fully alleviate their fears. It is a reality of the modern age that a tournament without Tiger is not really much of a tournament at all - either competitively or commercially - although any absence would inevitably make Sawgrass a more tempting chance than usual.

Yesterday Luke Donald appeared one of the most ready to take it. Belief fairly exuded out of Donald as he announced that his determination to go onwards and upwards after breaking into the world's top 10, with victory at the Honda Classic a fortnight ago, would be only intensifying.

"Intimidation" is a buzz word in golf right now but the lad from High Wycombe reiterated that he is at loss to understand quite why. Yet when you have recently taken a phone call from Arnold Palmer begging you to appear at his event, and when you have actually turned "The King" down, nothing - and yes, nobody - can appear too overwhelming.

"Yeah, it was a bit of a strange call," he said, reflecting on the mobile phone plonked in his hands moments after lifting his second PGA trophy at Palm Beach Gardens. "Someone said, it's Arnold for you and then he came on saying 'I'd love you to play in my tournament next week, what do you say?' What could I say? I didn't want to play four weeks in a row [he tees up at Atlanta next week before heading to the Masters] and I had some mates over from England visiting. So it wasn't really a possibility. Still, looking back I do feel a bit bad trying not to answer the question in a nice way and replying, 'I'll think about it'."

Palmer did not take the next day's RSVP personally - "Arnie just wanted the best players in the world at Bay Hill and he recognised Luke was now one of them," said a spokesman for the 75-year-old. But even this new convert to a golfer once referred to as "a plodder" by Woods, must have been slightly taken aback by Donald's ensuing declaration that it was his goal to usurp Woods as world No1 and that he did not necessarily believe he had to change that much to do it.

"I hope some of my comments took nothing away from Tiger, as he is still obviously far and away the best," said Donald. "But I do think the only way for me to catch him is to start believing I'm as good as him. If I don't believe that I'm not going to be as good as him, full stop. What you think often happens."

If that is indeed true, the weight of money reported by British bookmakers, forcing Donald into second favouritism here, might well be cannily placed. If anything else was apparent at Sawgrass yesterday, it was that the young Brit fancies going one better than last year's joint-second place finish. "This place suits me," he said. With prize-money of £5m making it the biggest purse in golf, it would suit anybody. But the 19-year void stretching back to Sandy Lyle's last British success here in 1987 does seem less daunting than ever.

* Paul Lawrie believes a spot of warm-weather practice after missing the cut in the Bay Hill Invitational last week has put him in good shape for the Madeira Open. "By the end of it I felt a lot happier," Lawrie said. "I am looking forward to playing in Madeira."