POMPANO BEACH, FLA. -- "I think that if I had to go away from golf, not be able to play and compete, it would be awfully hard for me." Lee Elder

Shortly, perhaps within a week, he will yank his clubs from the closet. Lee Elder will be a 53-year-old golfing again but apart from nearly all golfers. He shot 69 during the early tremors of a heart attack a month ago.

He will play nine holes at first, perhaps at the course that beckons from the window of his stylish condominium. That routine gradually will be replaced by a full round and later, after the anticipated full recovery, by a major tournament.

"The Senior PGA {championship} is what I'm pointing for," he said of that early-February event in Palm Beach Gardens. "I'll have played a few {low-money} tournaments around here by that time, seen how well the escalation of pressure has gone.

"Right now, everything looks very well."

The view from his easy chair also was impressive: a small Christmas tree off in another room; friends waiting to be joined for dinner. When his wife, Rose, appeared for drink orders, Elder smiled and chirped:

"Cranberry."

This is part of his new plan for living. In every way, he promises, we will see less of Lee Elder. No longer will his tummy precede him to the tee by several seconds; no longer will he play a schedule of exhibitions and tournaments that would exhaust a golfing Peter Pan.

"I'm looking at how lucky a man I am today," he said, "how I'm able to continue my career. My doctor said this was a warning, no damage, but that if I didn't {stop smoking and diet properly} I might not make 54."

Elder said he was reminded that his life style was similar to that of a friend, Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago, who died recently of a heart attack at his desk: "always on the run, grabbing a hot dog here, doing this, doing that, getting three hours of sleep . . . You can't do that and not suffer somewhere down the line."

Early on the morning of Nov. 23, about 12 hours after he finished a seniors tournament in Miami, Elder was rushed to the hospital. Fortunately, friends in a nearby condo had called paramedics; even luckier, one of them coaxed Elder to get a second opinion when the initial diagnosis was flu.

Elder had played the Gus Machado Classic through early-warning signs that included back and stomach pain. His swing had been noticeably restricted the first round of the tournament, but that gritty 69 tied for the lead.

Next day, harnessed in a brace, Elder shot 73 and stayed among the leaders. He dropped from contention the final round and was hit with full-bore misery and panic after packing for a trip to spend Thanksgiving at home with Rose.

"I'll probably stay here until April and then get back to Washington," he said. "The {rehabilitation} facilities are a lot closer, the weather is better and there are five courses {on the property where his condo is located} I can play."

A few seconds after Elder said he had not touched a club since putting out at the Gus Machado, Rose bounced into the room and said: "Did he tell you about that putting in the hospital?"

Lee Elder turned sheepish.

At the time, it seemed harmless enough. Helpful even. A nurse simply saw a golfer becoming energized and thought a putter would lift his spirits. For almost any other golfer, that would have been the just-right prescription.

To a sophisticated pro, Elder's doctor sternly said, that well-intended bit of charity was like somebody smuggling the stock tables to a broker a few days after a heart attack. The putter, after all, is a primary tool of a pressurized job that probably helped cause Elder's hospitalization.

The folly probably would have gone unnoticed had Elder and the nurse not created a linoleum-lined course that meandered under desks and into a plastic cup. It wasn't Augusta National, but an enthusiastic gallery quickly gathered.

What we'll call the Bedpan Open also had a quarter-a-hole purse, so to his senior tour earnings of $898,836.39, Elder added 50 cents.

Precisely because he is so skilled at his craft, Elder's immediate concern over the effects of a heart attack was greater than usual. Many people retire to golf; if an Elder cannot play, well . . .

"I couldn't be happy sitting at a golf course, or running a golf course," he said. "I tried that before. Or doing anything but playing and competing at golf, because I've been at it all my life.

"Whatever it takes to get back, I'll do. I was really out of condition. Drinking quite a bit of beer, smoking two packs a day for over 30 years, piling ice cream on top of apple pie late at night.

"I was 214 when I got to the hospital; I'm under 200 now -- and want to get to 180. Haven't had a cigarette in a month. My breathing is so much easier."

Elder also is second-guessing himself for skipping a January checkup in Los Angeles that had been routine for four years. He figures that might have uncovered something that would have led to even earlier detection.

The Mayo Clinic offered a free exam when he participated in a charity pro-am in July. All he chose was the part that helped relieve pain from kidney stones.

Elder says the over-50 senior tour is the "greatest blessing" of a lively golfing life that has included hustling about much of the Southwest and with such as the legendary Titanic Thompson.

His early years were spent as part of a touring team of athletic angle players. One man was slick at pool, another sly and successful at craps. Somebody else was a wonderful bowler. Elder and another fellow specialized in golf.

"I've seen the darkest of days," he said. "I've actually been on the street, or in an automobile, with friends and all we had between us was $2. Not enough for the five of us to stop and eat, simply because we had to get gas to get to the next stop.

"I've been in pool halls where you'd take on the best guy with no money in your pocket. Someone would be sitting in the car at the front door with the motor running, ready to pull off as soon as the game was over if you didn't win {and couldn't pay off}."

Quickly, he added: "I'm not ashamed of it. That was my way of making a living. Everyone's not fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But I never stole. I never would steal."

One of his golf bets had Elder riding from shot to shot on a bicycle. Another time, he would be blindfolded and spun around and around before trying to hit the ball toward a predetermined target. What the "pigeons" failed to notice was that a buddy had devised a wireless device that would signal Elder which way to turn once the spinning stopped.

"I've played in rain gear in 100-degree weather in Chicago," he said. "I've played on one leg; I've played with one arm. Some strange matches. Challenges. Things in life that the average person might not have survived."

With Thompson, Elder went into "places where I wouldn't have gone by myself if I'd have had a tank. I mean in the back, back woods of Tennessee and Oklahoma, places where they'd have hung a black man had he come in there alone."

Thompson often would sucker these brazen backwater golfers into playing his bag-toter, Elder. In those places in those times, they could not fathom a black man being adept at golf.

Of his mentor, Elder said: "He could talk so bad to you in such a nice way."

From scratching for dollar bills at golf, Elder has reached a level where people pay handsomely for his company at company outings. That caused him to grow complacent about his skills last year, he believes.

Elder now is "itchy to get in the best physical condition possible. I really know how important it is right now. I will probably work harder within the next year or so than I've ever worked on my golf game in the history of my career."

Pausing in comfort and peace, a man familiar with high-odds risk for so long admitted: "With a second chance {for extended good health}, it's pretty hard to think of a third one coming along."