Twelve years have passed since Lee Elder of Washington, D.C., took Jack Nicklaus through a five-hole playoff before finally losing in American Golf Classic.

At the time, many of the tour and in the media predicted a breakthrough for black golfers.

In a few years, it was projected, their number would be significantly higher in the mainstream of the PGA Tour. It would take five years, Elder said, for black golfers to adjust to the tougher courses from which they frequently had been denied access.

Today, there are fewer black golfers earning a decent living on the PGA Tour than there were five years ago. According to Elder, four are making it: Calvin Peete, Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe and Lee Elder. There were seven in 1975, but Charlie Sifford, Curtis Sifford and Pete Brown either don't play, or they don't win on the tour.

Elder said he cannot see a reversal of the trend. He says college golf programs -- the reason the tour now stands at its most competitive level ever -- are largely responsible.

The major college golf programs serve as the tour's farm system. There are tournaments almost weekly, scheduled at many of the toughest courses around. The system provides competition and pressure unavailable to other tour candidates.

These collegians also have the benefits of a highly teaching professional as their coach.

In contrast, Elder said, unless a black golfer comes out of high school. with top credentials, he will end up playing college golf at a smaller school where the competition is not as keen and the coach is likely to be a physical education instructor or the athletic director.

Therefore, young black golfers wanting a career on the PGA Tour find themselves caught in a vicious circle. In fact, Elder said, it is very difficult to keep athletic black youngsters interested in golf over basketball, for instance, because of the relatively high cost of the sport.

"The only thing I can do is continue to keep teaching golf to black kids and keep them interested," Elder said.

The most promising young black golfer on the horizon, Elder said, is Al Morton, who attended Washington's Anacostia High. He attended Indiana University a couple of years before entering the service. Last year, he won the all-Army championship and finished second for the interservice title.

Last summer, he failed to survive the regional cut for the qualifying school, at which the top 25 players earn their tour cards. Two weeks ago he passed this year's regional trials and will attempt to earn his tour card June 11-14 at Pinehurst, N.C.

In an era when some players are getting ont he tour at the age of 20 or 21 and five years is the average for a tour player to establish his game, the youngest of the four consistent black money winners is Thorpe, 31.

Elder, at 44, is a crossroads. After winning $152,198 and finishing 13th in money winnings in 1978, Elder won only $65,246 last year, partly due to an old knee injury. This year, he has played in only 13 events, with winnings of $7,398.

His knee is better. He also has been pleased with the progress of his operation of the Langston public golf course in Washington, which has taken so much of his time.

"I have to make the decision -- do you want to leave this alone and turn your attention back to golf?" Elder said. "I will certainly not continue to play out here and play the way I've played the last six months."

Starting with the Colonial Invitational two weeks ago, Elder decided to devote six straight weeks to the tour, including this week's Kemper Open at Congressional.

"I'm going to work at it harder now and play more," Elder said. "I'm going to have to play my back into condition. You can't get your game back without being im competition.

"Is it mental? Definitely. Physically. I feel great. Mentally, it's a fact of not feeling sharp. I haven't had my mind completely on golf."

Elder is not exactly walking out on his business ventures. His wife Rose will continue with those operations and "we are getting people in key positions that we want them in. It's taken a lot of the burden off Rose and myself."

Two weeks ago, Elder began hitting 200-300 practice balls daily, a move he said began "a general overhauling of my game."

At the time, his problem sounded like that of any golfer with poor timing.

"I'm drawing the ball and drawing it very badly," he said. "I'm coming over the top of it. I've changed stances."

He does not want to leave the tour and scoffs at any idea that he is at the end of his career. Thus, his plans have changed from 12 years ago, when he qualified for the U.S. Open for the first time, and he figured he wanted to play the tour for a decade then go to a club job.

"After doing so well the last couple of years, you throw the plans you made out he window," he said.