Richard Nixon, invited to this West African country to promote its first big-league golf tournament, today handed out leftover presidential golf balls with his signature on them and evaded questions about the U.S. Republican presidential candidates.

After arriving here near the end of the tournament's third day, Nixon joked with players at the 18th hole of the new $6 million course, the pride of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

The former U.S. president at first drew a smaller crowd than the throng watching South Africa's Gary Player move neatly out of a sand trap to finish with a 201 third-round score in a tie with Britain's Peter Townsend.

Nixon met with reporters in a spacious new clubhouse, but was elusive in answering questions about this year's U.S. presidential campaign.

He said he did not dare try to predict the eventual nominees because "one of those guys could surprise us and come in late with a 62," a reference to the course record 10 below par shot by Townsend Thursday.

Nixon clearly preferred to praise his hosts and discuss sports rather than comment on U.S. politics.

"It is rather strange to see a championship course in Africa," he said. "I would have said 10 years ago that it was unlikely. It is indicative of the great economic progress that has been made here."

The tournament has drawn 27 professional golfers from 17 countries. Among those invited to promote it besides Nixon were American entertainers Barry White, Greg Morris and Raymon St. Jacques.

The just completed golf complex here is one more opulent facility in this showplace that is the focus of Houphouet-Boigny's material legacy to the country he led to independence from France 20 years ago.

The intensive development that has made the Ivory Coast a model for other African nations is concentrated here in Houphouet-Boigny's birthplace 150 miles inland from the coastal capital, Abidjan. But the most striking feature of Yamoussoukro is its vast emptiness.

Sparsely traveled six-lane highways intersect the large land tracts where meticulously tended gardens surround richly appointed buildings. A national high school for boys that accepts only the first ranked student from primary schools around the country has 850 students five years after it was built for a capacity of 3,000.

The city hall built four years ago of Iranian marble and Ivory Coast hardwoods polished to a brilliance stands empty. The town has no mayor.

Some say, that Yamoussoukro is a city for the future designed to avoid the crowded conditions of Abidjan's poorer quarters. Others maintain that it was the intended home for the president's klansmen, the Baoule, who would not be coaxed from their villages between the southern rain forest and drier northern savannah.

This is Houphouet-Boigny's favorite place to entertain foreign dignitaries. His own compound, at least a mile square behind a high concrete wall, holds a mosaic-decorated guest house that would dwarf the White House. His personal residence is a more modern stone and glass structure, its interior filled with tapestries and furnishings in the style of 18th Century French kings.

The palace faces a shallow lake that is the home of the sacred fat yellow crocodiles that crawl up to snap at chunks of meat tossed by groundskeepers for visitors' amusement.

Huge billboards on empty tracts foretell construction of an 850-bed international hospital, the Felix Houphouet Boigny Foundation to Support African History and Culture Studies, and other grand projects to come.

The city hall, its parking lot vacant except for the bicycles of maintenance workers, smells of paint and newness. Air conditioners hum in offices that contain only stacked furniture and folded drafting tables. A 2,000-seat theater and meeting hall with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and red plush upholstery sits abandoned and dark.

Between the city and the dense forest that has been pushed back to make way for urban development, paved roads wind through mango and avocado trees on one of the plantations that helped to make Houphouet-Boigny a wealthy man before he came to power. Thick green rows of pineapple trees stretch to the horizon on his 3,000-acre farm.