The National Park Service's conversion of part of the public golf course at East Potomac Park to a picnic area has prompted a band of devoted elderly golfers to wage a spirited campaign to win back the land for golf.

The course at East Potomac Park, commonly known as Hains Point, had 36 holes until the Park Service eliminated the nine-hole F Course earlier this year as part of a nearly $2 million plan to relieve traffic congestion and increase open recreation space in the park.

Located on a peninsula that juts into the Potomac River southeast of the Jefferson Memorial, 329-acre East Potomac Park is a popular recreation area for tennis players, joggers and picnickers as well as golfers.

Of the four nine-hole golf courses at the park, the 45-acre F Course was the favorite of senior citizens, who liked its easy access to the clubhouse and its intermediate-length fairways.

Shortly after the Park Service replaced the F Course's greens with grass and picnic tables earlier this year, a group of retired and elderly golfers organized the East Potomac Park Golf Association and began a campaign to have the Park Service restore the F Course. They have circulated petitions--including one with 1,225 names that was recently sent to Interior Secretary James Watt--written letters and made personal appeals to congressmen, and leveled strong criticism at the Park Service.

"We're a small group of unimportant people, but we're trying hard to get our message across," said Ethel Godin, a leader of the group.

Godin, 73, who began playing golf at East Potomac with her husband when they retired from their government jobs 11 years ago, said that she and other senior golfers have cut back on the rounds they play because the remaining courses are more demanding and because their slower playing style irritates younger golfers. She said senior golfers favored the less difficult F Course in part because younger and better golfers usually did not play there.

However, Park Service officials said they could not justify keeping all 36 holes in the face of surveys that showed that the entire course was underused and that there was a greater and growing demand for more open recreation space. Golfers made up only 16 percent of the people using the park, but the 36 holes occupied 65 percent of the land, officials said.

"We had to do something to bring it more into balance," said Michael Donnelly, a Park Service planning official, who added that the demand for other recreational activities is increasing at the rate of 40 percent a year.

In addition to the picnic areas, the Park Service plans to put several ball fields on the former F Course site.

Donnelly said the new 27-hole configuration will satisfy the park's golfing requirements for at least 10 years.

He said the Park Service will try to meet the needs of the senior golfers by realigning the fairways on one of the remaining three courses to make it safer to play.

Another reason the F Course was selected for conversion over the other three courses is that it was the one closest to the park's entrance and part of its land could be used for a new road that will help divert traffic off Ohio Drive SW, the main road running through the park, Donnelly said.

He said about 150 additional parking spaces will be created on the new road as part of an overall plan to provide nearly 500 additional parking spaces throughout the park.

Donnelly said the Park Service made its decision after studying various alternatives for 2 1/2 years and consulting with city and federal planners, as well as holding public hearings.

He said he sees no chance the Park Service would restore the F Course.

"We've reached a decision and we're implementing it," he said.

Godin said she realizes "it will take a miracle if we got our golf course back," but she said the group will continue its fight. "If we gave up, that's just what they want. We're not going to do that."