Els starts hitting balls, eyes December return

Although he wasn't close to healthy enough to defend his title at last week's WGC-American Express Championship, Ernie Els began hitting balls last week in London, an indication that his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament is ahead of schedule. Still, Els isn't expected to make his competitive return until December, when he plans to play in the South African Open the week before Christmas.

Ricci Roberts, Els' longtime caddie, left the AmEx immediately after caddieing for Charl Schwartzel to meet his regular boss in Southern California, where Els would honor a commitment to Titleist, his primary equipment sponsor.

"I asked him if he was hitting half-shots, and he said, 'No, I practiced for an hour,'" Roberts said. "The biggest thing may be walking 18 holes. I know he's itching to get back, but if he doesn't feel like he's ready, he won't do it."

Els' 2005 season ended in early August when he was injured while vacationing on the Mediterranean. Because his last tour victory came at the AmEx one year ago, the Big Easy is ineligible for the 2006 Mercedes Championships for just the second time in his career. Despite missing the last two months, he remains fourth in the World Ranking, although his lead over Retief Goosen has dwindled to .07 points. Goosen, who also missed the Amex because of a groin injury, would have needed a top-five finish at Harding Park to move ahead of Els in the ranking.

John Huggan is the European correspondant for Golf World magazine