Kids stand outside the scorer's tent behind the 18th green at the Masters golf tournament. They waylay the pros for autographs and golf balls. A Lee Elder autograph today wasn't worth much, what with him scraping in with a 77 to play his way out of the tournament. So a pretty little girl said, "Got any golf balls, Mr. Elder?"

"Lost 'em all in the creek," Elder replied kindly.

These are the best of times for Lee Elder, these are the worst of times. After 30 years of schuffling, up from his hustling days at Tonnyson Park in Los Angeles, Elder now runs his own golf course, Langston, in Washington. But the talent he developed in the sweatshop of poverty, the talent that moved him from the black man's isolated world into clubhouses with millionaires named Nicklaus and Palmer, that talent is going aglimmering.

"Next year is my last year," said Elder, 45, who has played in 27 tournaments a year, winning $805,399 since he sprang into our consciousness by taking Jack Nicklaus five extra holes before losing the American Golf Classis in 1968, his first PGA season.

"The interest is just not there," Elder said. "I'm kinda down on myself right now. When you get over a shot and you're not comfortable, you've going to play the way I've been playing."

In all 11 tournaments this year, Elder has won only $6,625 and has not finished higher than 32nd. Afflicted with a putting stroke that undid all the good work of his precision driving and iron play, two weeks ago Elder took a lesson from another pro, Dave Stockton. In this Masters, Elder putted very well but drove horribly, turning everything into the left woods.

Of such tortures are retirements made.

"I'm not going to continue to play this way," said Elder, whose round today was 33-44 -- 77 blend the sensational and sinful. "I'll leave the clubs in the closet first. I'm not going to play until my game is good enough to play out here."

Elder plans to return to the tour in three weeks at Houston and play maybe 10 more times this year. Then he'll cut his schedule down to 15 tournaments next year, half the work load under which he won four PGA tournaments and established himself as not only the preeminent black player ever but one of the 50 players of any race who could win any tournament, any time, any place.

What Elder was this week, though, was a man on a treasure hunt. He was looking for a golf swing. Because he needed only 14 putts on the first nine holes, Elder made the turn at two under par.

Elder is a short, compact man whose heavily muscled shoulders, smithy's forearms and ample stomach suggest he might have been a running back once, a running back who at age 45 would still be in wonderful shape were it not for a devotion to beer (Michelob is an Elder sponsor).

As it happens, he was a sandlot quarterback.

"A lousy one," Elder said. "And that's how I got this bum knee."

The bum knee gives the lie to Elder's appearance as a fit athlete. On every swing, the right knee aches. It cannot bear the necessary weight shifted to that side on the backswing. So he sometimes favors it.The result is a short hit to the left, an ugly kind of diving hook that is the exact opposite of the soft fading-to-the-right shot that made Elder the first black in the Masters, the first on the Ryder Cup team, "one of the guys (to quote another black player, Clavin Peete) who blazed the way for the rest of us."

After that first-nine 33, Elder snapped a drive into the left woods to make a bogey at the 10th. The day before, he fought the evils of that hook. He blamed it then on a soft grip he had put on his driver, saying it changed the feel. He fixed that overnight and the hook was gone -- until the 10th today.

And at the 11th he again sent a shot wildly left, which led to another bogey. In the 11th fairway, Elder flexed his driver shaft across his knee. Maybe, just maybe, the shaft was bent. Golfers are relentless in their search for answers. Elder reaches behind him and pulled his right foot up against his hamstring, trying to loosen up the swollen knee.

He three-putted the 12th for a third straight bogey. At the 13th, which demands a perfectly placed drive, Elder's drifting-left tee shot rolled into Rae's Creek. Whacking at it from the creek bottom, Elder slapped the ball off a rock that sent it ricocheting straight left, never to be found.

Double bogey there. Bye-bye, Masters. Elder was on his way back to Washington for three weeks' vacation.

"That's the way I've been playing -- up and down," Elder said. As well as he played the first nine holes -- no one has done better than 33 this week -- Elder was helpless after that. "The wheels ran off," he said.

This was Elder's fifth Masters. It is a measure of his progress that he didn't particularly care about missing the cut. His Ryder Cup status gives him an automatic invitation back here next year. After his first-day, 76, Elder said, "If I'm going to just barely make the cut and have to tee off real early the last two days, I'd rather go home."

Home it is. Every athelete comes up against the end at an age when people in the real world are just rolling into high gear. It isn't easy, and one suspects Lee Elder would like to make another million playing golf the next 10 years. He scuffled too long in too many dirty places not to be proud of what he's done. He made enough money on the Unite Tour, the black man's separate and unequal tour, to send himself to the PGA qualifying school in 1967.

Up from nothing, he is something.

He knows it. He sells Lee Elder very well. Among the 20 people following him today was Jack Pohanka of Washington, the Oldsmobile dealer who pays Elder to pitch his cars on TV and in print advertising. If Elder lost that first palyoff to Nicklaus, he won his last playoff a decade later over Lee Trevino, a wonder of perseverance himself. Elder knows he can sell cars off what 'e's done, for his career is memorable, but he knows his better: you can't hustle a hustler.

He knows his time is up. He knows the knee will never be a quarterback's knee again. He'll be 46 this summer, a long and hard 46. The putting touch is threatening a complete evacuation. Though he won $152,198 and two tournaments in 1978, he dropped off to $65,246 last year without a victory. The spiral seems to lead inevitably downward.

And Elder is ready. In 1970 he first thought of running Langston, a woebegone municipal layout used to eat up a different operator yearly. "It was an eight-year struggle," Elder said, dismissing with a quick smile reports the owner, the U.S. government, was not enamored with the idea of a black touring pro in charge of the property.

Elder, though, took a 20-year lease on the place and has put $100,000 into improvements of the course and the clubhouse.

"Twenty years from now," said this man who 20 years ago couldn't think much past tomorrow, "I'll be running Langston. That's my future."