"You have to search. When you feel in yourself, it's not your swing, it has to be your equipment." -- Lee Elder For two years, Lee Elder searched.

"Tried just about every name brand," said Washington's touring pro golfer. "Went through eight different sets (of clubs). Went from S (stiff shafts) to X (extra stiff) back to an S."

Golf, more than any other professional sport, is a mental game. If a player doesn't have confidence in his sticks, he won't play well.

"I kept making the cuts and I'd come up with a mediocre round Saturday and a lousy round Sunday," he said. "I'd make $1,000, but that wasn't my golf game."

For the last two weeks, though, Elder, 46, has played well.

"These (new) shafts are the greatest thing that's happened to me since I've played golf," he said. "It's made my game turn around completely -- from the disaster stage to being a threat to win any tournament I enter."

Elder said this from the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., where his 68-70-72 -- 210 left him at three under par and tied for ninth place yesterday after 54 holes of the $400,000 Westchester Classic. Last week, at Atlanta, he tied for third. The week before, in the Kemper Open Here, his 20th-place finish was his best in two seasons. His next-best finish was 29th.

In late March, a president of a golf club manufacturing company showed Elder a two-sized shaft used by a handful of tour players not under contract to better-known manufacturers of equipment. It's known as a "power-kick" shaft, because the top 15 inches or so are very thick and the rest is normal. The effect is the "power-kick" that results in extra distance and better accuracy while the golfer does not have to swing as hard.

He took those clubs on the tour, testing them much of the spring, not quite confident enough to use them regularly under pressure. A month ago he came home, practiced hard for a week and left all his other sticks in Washington when he rejoined the tour at Muirfield.

Elder never has been a terrific putter, in the mold of Tom Watson, Isao Aoki or even Ben Crenshaw. So when his game goes bad, he hits fewer greens and can't drop enough putts to save enough pars. "Now," he said, "I feel I can hit 14-15 greens a round."

Here's the difference with the "power-kick" shaft put into some iron and wood heads Elder already had: He hits the ball about 10 yards farther, while swinging easier. "The whole thing here," he said, "is not a mental state, but a confidence state. I have confidence I will hit the shot I'm trying to hit. Ninety percent of the time it comes off that way."

At Atlanta, when he was tied for the lead after nine holes on Saturday afternoon, he shot 39 on the back nine. Three times he three-putted. Three times with breaking downhill putts, he left them short, leaving putts for par more difficult than he would have had from below the cup.

Elder, who next year will qualify for an exemption to play the tour as one of its 50 all-time leading money winners, has not won a tour event since the 1978 Westchester. He recalls those three three-putt greens within six holes, and none from more than 25 feet, and says he had forgotten how to win.

"I wasn't tournament-tightened. I hadn't been near the top that often recently," he said. "I was misjudging and not thinking the proper way. It was hard to pick and choose my clubs. Now it's beginning to come around. Thursday was windy and a tough day (to play). I shot 68 without any problems. I struck the ball well, only missed two fairways and three greens. That's where the improvement is beginning to come and show."

In retrospect, Elder says, not only did he lack confidence in his clubs -- the touring pros fiddle with their sticks all the time -- "I wasn't putting forth the effort to get out of the slump. I really didn't put that much physical effort into working on my game and in changing clubs. You have to search."

For the three tournaments before Elder found Nat Rosasco, president of the Northwestern Golf Company that makes the "power-kick" shaft, Elder missed the cut. He came to the Tournament Players Championship, in his words, "down in the dumps and not playing well."

Even though he was playing poorly, he said he never considered quitting the tour to return home, teach and operate the Langston public course of which he is the concessionaire.

"It (the slump) is a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "Everybody on the tour goes in a slump . . . It depends on how long it takes to come out of it."

Nevertheless, Elder returned to Washington following the TPC. Here, he and his wife/business manager Rose looked at his future.

"A lot of people," Elder said, "might have given it up. But Rose and I agreed: this is how we make a living, how we got here, that we know I'm not through, that I'm capable of making a living on the tour.

"I could have easily walked away, teaching and working at the club. I knew that I would not have been satisfied. I knew that I have a lot of golf left in me."

After earning only $8,766 in his first 15 tournaments this season, Elder made $19,933 for the Kemper and Atlanta.

Things are looking up. He and his wife have been invited to a White House dinner honoring professional athletes June 22. That's the day after the final round of the U.S. Open at Merion, a course he never has played.

But, when a pro golfer is confident, that's no roadblock. "Good time to come out of the slump," he said.