Washington golfer Lee Elder once again has found his putting groove and his improved play has him vying with Don January and Miller Barber for domination of the Senior PGA Tour.

After switching putters, Elder two weeks ago won the Senior Grand Slam in Japan and with it a new car. Although it was not an official event on the Senior PGA Tour, the $50,000 first-place prize buys just as well.

Last week, in the Senior PGA Tour Suntree Classic in Melbourne, Fla., Elder opened with a 64, birdied three of his first six holes on the final day and led by nine strokes before cruising to a six-shot victory.

Elder, who became eligible for the senior tour in July when he turned 50, now has won one Senior PGA Tour event to go with four victories on the regular PGA Tour.

Elder, recognized as a great iron player, said he owes his recent success to a switch to a Ping "Answer" putter.

His opening round at Suntree included missed putts of two and three feet on the first two holes, but he ended up using fewer than 100 putts in four rounds (he won the 18-hole pro-am and the 54-hole tournament).

"I putted very well in Japan, and very well last week," Elder said from Hilton Head, S.C., where he will compete in this week's Senior International.

"I must have 200 putters, but I've gone through many more than that. Some of them I have given away."

Elder officially has won $69,890 on the seniors tour this year, $36,458 on the regular tour, plus the Japanese purse and other income.

"I'm going to set a goal for myself of winning a couple of tournaments and $150,000 each year," he said. "That's certainly reachable; if I exceed that, all well and good."

He plans to play the regular tour Pensacola Open next week, and will team with Calvin Peete in the Chrysler Team Invitational, Dec. 13-16.

He hopes to finish as one of the 125 top earners so he can pick his spots on next year's regular tour. He now ranks 124th.

"The first year they started the seniors tour, in 1982, they had three or four tournaments," Elder said. "They have 26 scheduled for next year. I'm happy about that. That's the consensus of all of the seniors players. Now, instead of club jobs, they can continue their career in competitive golf.

"I really enjoy this tour. It's such a relaxing atmosphere. But we're not playing Mickey Mouse courses. They are 6,500 and 6,600 yards; very tight and demanding.

"The one thing that I really want is to spread good will. The majority of the guys on this tour are the guys I started with. We got out of contact. We got reacquainted. They're still calling me rookie."

Elder has earned more than $1 million since joining the regular tour in 1967.

In 1968, he leaped into prominence when he extended Jack Nicklaus five extra holes before losing a playoff in the televised American Golf Classic.

In 1974 came his first tournament victory, the Monsanto Open, after his wife and manager, Rose, talked him into competing; he had not wanted to go because he was playing poorly. Elder was the first black to play in the Masters, in 1975. After winning two tournaments in 1978, including the rich Westchester, he was named to the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Elder expressed disappointment that his wife has never been on hand when he has won an official PGA Tour event. "If she could see me win, it would be the highlight of my life."

"It's just one of those things," Rose Elder said. "I've seen him in Africa, Japan and Australia. I have watched him all over the world, except Russia and China.

"I've walked the golf course for 15 years and about 1,000 tournaments, through rain, hail and everything. But I've never seen him win a PGA event."

Elder hopes to give his wife a nice present for her 48th birthday, which she will celebrate Thursday. She will be on the scene in Hilton Head. She fervently wants to view a Lee Elder victory, in person.