Els leaves Titleist, signs with Callaway

Ernie Els has signed a new equipment deal with Callaway Golf, ending his relationship with Titleist that began in 2003. The switch is believed to be effective immediately, as his profile has been removed from the Titleist Web site.

Callaway officials, however, are denying this is a done deal, according to GolfDigest.com.

Els' five-year contract with Titleist was up for renewal at the end of 2007, but negotiations between the world No. 6 and the Acushnet company evidently fell through, leaving Callaway the option of buying out the remaining year of his current contract with Titleist -- which it did.

The move comes two months after the 37-year-old Els announced at the SA Airways Open in December that he was rededicating himself to becoming the world's No. 1 player. A final-round 65 gave Els his fourth SA Open title at Humewood.

In his bag at the SAA Open at Humewood in December was a prototype Titleist 907 D2 driver and the new Titleist Pro V1x ball.

It's not certain at this early stage whether Els as part of his new contract will have to discontinue using a Titleist golf ball, which he has used throughout his career, in favor of the Callaway HX Tour ball used by staff players such as Phil Mickelson and Charles Howell III.

One reason for Callaway's interest might be to counter the move made by Henrik Stenson to Srixon at the end of 2006. Callaway need a marquee player in Europe and Els will provide this.

Els tees up in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket this week, and was reported to have used a Callaway Fusion driver during a practice round Monday. He was also believed to have been seen recently at the Callaway testing facility in Surrey, near his Wentworth home.

It is the third major equipment change in recent years for Els. He won two of his three majors, the 1997 U.S. Open and 2002 British Open, as a TaylorMade player. Since signing with Titleist in 2003, he has won five tournaments on the PGA Tour, but the last of those was the WGC-American Express Championship in 2004.

Els will join Mickelson and Howell as Callaway's highest-profile players. His coach, David Leadbetter, is also endorsed by Callaway.

Along with numerous new advertising campaigns and photo shoots for his new sponsors -- requiring his time and effort -- the Ernie Els Foundation will have to discontinue the use of its Titleist equipment.