The azaleas are blooming in Augusta. Six hundred miles north, the cherry blossoms are taking a beating from winter's backlash.

For the first time since 1975, Lee Elder isn't playing in the Masters tournament. He's home in Washington, strengthening his knee and his resolve. "I haven't had a chance to look at the cherry blossoms since I've been home," he said. "But when I look at them, azaleas will be on my mind."

Eight years ago, Elder became the first black golfer to qualify for the Masters and he has been answering questions about it ever since. As Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson pointed out recently, there is something insulting in those "first black" questions, "first black" labels. Elder does not regard himself as "the Great Black Hope" in a great, white sport. At age 47, he is simply a golfer who has great hopes for being better than he has been.

Elder says it's lonely being in Washington this week. Driving down Magnolia Lane--that's what he misses most, he says--that and his friends. "At the start of the week, it was eating away at me, not being there," he said. "It's the greatest tournament I've ever competed in. But I do not stay awake at night."

"Certainly, I'm down on myself, not having played well enough to qualify for Augusta," he said. "I was in great position to qualify at the U.S. Open. Then I went bogey, par, double bogey on the last three holes of the last round and missed it by a couple of shots (the top 16 finishers at the Open qualify for the Masters). It's hard to live it down, thinking about those shots. When you have something in your grasp and you let it get away--it's hard to live down something of that importance."

In 1973, before he qualified for the Masters, Elder says, some members of Congress wrote to the tournament directors asking for a special invitation for him. He would have refused it, he says. This year, he wondered whether he would get one (none were given), but wasn't disappointed when it didn't come.

His last chance to qualify was Sunday at Greensboro, N.C. He failed to make the cut. The week before in the Sea Pines-Heritage Classic at Hilton Head Island, S.C., he finished 62nd. In 11 tournaments this year, he has made the cut six times. His best finish was a tie for 24th at the Bob Hope Desert Classic, where he shot a 67 in the third round and earned $2,292.

Although his best finish in a tournament since 1978 was a tie for third in Atlanta last year, he has no thoughts of retiring. He says he doesn't want to and can't afford to (last year he finished 72nd on the money list with $59,829). Where does he go from here? "To the next golf tournament," he said, smiling.

"At Sea Pines, I looked at myself and what I had done and I said, 'This is not very rewarding.' I talked to myself and said, 'I need a little more motivation, I need to work a little harder.' That week, I worked harder. After two rounds, I was five shots back of the leader. The next couple of days, it got cold and rainy, and I am not a good cold-weather player."

Elder said he had become a lazy player. "I think you'll see a more determined Lee Elder," he said. "Being home this week, I've had the chance to analyze the way I've played since January. I think I have to change my approach. I took golf for granted too much. I didn't practice as much as I should. I'd hit a few balls early in the morning. I didn't really practice or putt. I'd leave the golf course, go sit in the motel, maybe have a couple of beers and read a magazine. I took for granted that my game was in good enough shape that I didn't have to practice. With the level of competition, you have to practice harder."

Elder thinks he can get better. That, of course, is contingent upon his body treating him better. He has long been troubled by a bad knee and a slipped disk, which went out again Monday, when he reached for a club. He lifts weights to strengthen his knee and does stretching exercises to help his back. He will play 15 more tournaments this year, and says he will try to maintain a schedule of two weeks on and one week off to ease the strain on his back. "I'll compete as long as I can walk," he says.

Like many golfers, Elder is concerned about the image of the game. "The tour now has a lot of young kids who are not very personable," he says. "Every time you turn on the television, you see some young . . . kid who's not gonna crack a smile."

Golf "has become such a big business, people don't enjoy it as much as when the purses were small and the pros were more outgoing," he said. "Today if the fans come out and say something to a guy, he'll snub him off. They saw so many guys do this, they took it upon themselves to act the same way. When a person pays money to come through the gate and wants to say hello on the fairway after you've made your shot, I see nothing wrong with it. . . That's the type of thing the older players realize. If the fans don't come through the gate, you're out of a job."

With so many younger players, he says, "it's just a money game. I always felt I was an entertainer. I would go to the ropes to talk with them. Today, the players are like robots. You wind 'em up and put 'em on the first tee and probably not more than two words will be said from the first tee to the 18th green."

He shook his head. Golf, you see, needs its elders.