Lee Elder, golf bag on shoulder, was trudging up the steps to the Inverness clubhouse when silver-haired Arnold Palmer grabbed him and pretended to push Elder back down the stairs.

"Oh, make way for the king, huh?" said Elder with a grin.

"Who's the king?" said Palmer, well aware that it was Elder who had just shot 69 to move into fifth place after three rounds of the U.S. Open.

His 215 total, equaled by second-round coleader Larry Nelson, left him six strokes behind Hale Irwin, who took a three-stroke lead with today's 67.

"Man, do you make everything you stand over?" Asked Palmer, referring to Elder's mysterious mastery of the six-foot putt. "You're making all us other old guys look bad. We miss 'em and you keep making 'em."

The oldest man to ever win the U.S. Open was 43, and he did it here at Inverness in 1920. Elder is 44.

"Sounds like an omen to me," Elder said. "Good news for the old guard. If I play tomorrow like I did today, I'll be right on top of it . . . I love where I am . . just right so I can stay aggressive and see if those leaders start backing up to me."

Without a doubt, Elder's career is peaking at a late date. He won $152,198 last season - 13th on the money list - and two tournaments. So far this season, he is a solid 39th with his game - especially his driving and putting - on the upgrade.

"Yes, I'm at the peak," said the mellow Elder. "I've got no worries, no financial pressures. I can finally just play golf and enjoy life."

Certainly, this is Elder's best performance in a major tournament.He was fifth after two rounds in the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach, Calif., but faded with a 78-79 finish for 22nd. He was also ninth at the PGA in 1974 at Tanglewood, Winston-Salem, N.C.

"I'll be ahead of ninth, that's for sure," beamed Elder. "I'm driving the ball exceptionally well, and that's the biggest key to making this course playable.

"My nerves will hold up," he smiled. "I don't feel any pressure. I've been through the pressure of being the first black to play in the Masters. Either I'm gonna play good, or I'm not.

"I'm going to play aggressively, but maybe not as aggressively as today. I started birdie-birdie and I forgot that you've got to romance this course, you gotta play some defense. I shot at the flags all day, but it might have cost me my two bogeys (at the third and fifth)," said Elder, who birdied one, two, four and 14.

Elder can use a bit more of the luck he had today when he wedged in for birdie at the monstrously tough 466-yard par-four fourth for a birdie. He also holed a 30-foot seagoer for birdie at the 14th on a putt that "broke three different times then died in the hole on the last roll."

With that nervy touch that Palmer and all the other over-40's envy, Elder also saved par four times with one putt.

As is often the case, Elder's game is back on the beam after a slow 1979 start because his wife, Rose, herself an excellent player at one time, has spotted a flaw in her husband's game.

"Rose knows golf," said Elder, "but she knows me even better."

"She noticed that I was going back too fast on my swing. That made me sway onto my right side, then hurry back with my shoulders so that I blocked everything out to the right," Elder said. "I was getting no shoulder or body turn at all."

With that corrected, Elder has returned to his normal form. "I've learned my game and my limitations. I don't take a gamble as often as I once did. If it's a 50-50 deal, I'll think about it, but I may back off, too. Once, I was too inclined to shoot at the pin."

Elder's position is probably a blessing. Six shots behind leader Hale Irwin, his chances are certainly of the long-shot variety. Elder should get a good night's sleep, knowing that if his name disappears from the leader board, no fingers will be pointed at him, since he never got terribly close to the lead.

"I'm not going to think about the U.S. Open until tomorrow morning," said Elder. "I'm going to relax, have a couple of beers and not do anything different. I'm not going to mess myself up with the late-late show, that's for sure.

"It will be an easy final round - the crowds seem to pull for me now. People get used to seeing me play. I think they root for me and that helps.

"I know they say that winning the Open is worth a million dollars (in fringe benefits). Well, I'll settle for that $50,000 check."

"I'm sure that it would push me up that financial ladder. But I think more of what it would mean to tbe the first black man to win the U.S. Open. That's something that might stand for quite some number of years."

Then, as he rested after his 74-72-69 - 215 labors, Elder showed the first hint of temper below the surface. A request arrived for him to visit the press tent and give his thoughts to 360 reporters from around the world.

"I'm not going," Elder said. "Where were they when I wasn't on the leader board."

Elder, no longer a crusader but a fixture in the golf world, sat back with his first beer. When Palmer wrestles with you in the locker room of the Inverness Club, you have indeed reached golf's upper room.

With the good will of the king - and the rest of the golf world as well - Elder prepared to sleep the untroubled sleep of the man who lurks on the heels of the leaders. CAPTION: Picture, Tom Weiskopf is happy with par on the eighth hole. He shot 67 yesterday and trails leader Hale Irwin by three strokes. UPI