Lee Elder will turn 65 next month, an age when many of his Senior PGA Tour contemporaries essentially have become ceremonial golfers. They are spectator-friendly reminders of golf's past glories and are delighted and rather amazed to be playing for more money than they ever did on the PGA Tour.

Texas-born Elder, who lived in Washington for most of his tour career, would like to keep playing senior golf as long as he can. But at times over the past 3 1/2 months, he doubted he would ever play again.

On the morning of March 14, he got out of the shower in his hotel room in Newport Beach, Calif., and suddenly had double vision in his left eye. At first, he thought it was a minor inconvenience, perhaps a speck of dirt in the eye. He put in eye drops and played in the final round of the Toshiba Senior Classic, shooting an uncharacteristic 84. Even worse, the double vision would not go away.

Elder, a diabetic, went to a local hospital and underwent a battery of tests. A stroke was quickly ruled out and he was advised to return home to south Florida for further evaluation if the double vision did not disappear.

It didn't.

After trying to play the next two weeks, he went to Boston's Joslin Diabetes Clinic. He was told by doctors there that a nerve in his left eye had essentially frozen, perhaps as a result of a recent bout with flu, and that his vision problem was a common occurrence among diabetics. They said there was a 75 percent chance normal vision could return over the next 10 to 12 weeks.

The bad news was obvious: There was a 25 percent chance it would not.

"I was just thinking, `Oh my God, what do I do now?' " Elder recalled yesterday at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia, where he will play in the State Farm Senior Classic this week. "I sat around the house for a few weeks, not playing or even practicing. I couldn't drive. But I finally said the heck with it -- as long as I'm exempt, I might as well just go out there and play."

Elder's doctor told him he couldn't make his vision any worse, so he played, wearing a patch over his left eye. Elder's scores often soared into the eighties. It was hardly fit for a man who had won four times on the PGA Tour and eight times as a senior, and was the first man of color to play in The Masters, in 1975.

Elder was fine off the tee and the fairway, but the patch clearly was having an effect on his short game. When he got low over a pitch or putt, he had a serious problem with depth perception, making it difficult to gauge how far to hit his ball or to discern breaks in the greens. Often, his caddie had to line him up to putt.

Elder became a role model to African Americans because of the significance of his participation in The Masters. But golf fans of all races rallied behind the man with the patch, constantly telling him to "hang in there."

Some of his peers were not so kind. There was some grumbling that Elder might have been wiser to stay home until he could get his game in the proper gear. He had other ideas.

"Some people admired me for playing, other guys said I shouldn't be out here because I was taking a spot away from someone more qualified," he said. "Heck, it was my spot. I earned that spot whether I was playing with one or two eyes."

Over the past two weeks, Elder's vision has improved considerably. He says he's now at about 90 percent, that his only problem occurs when he tries to look toward his left shoulder and has virtually no peripheral vision. He can drive a car again, though he often defers to his wife, Sharon, who he says "was always encouraging me, trying to keep my spirits up. She wouldn't let me get down, she's really helped me get through this."

Says Sharon: "He's still not 100 percent, and maybe this is as far as he'll get. But the fans still love to see him and talk to Lee. To me, he's one of the most under-appreciated people out here. All he does is give back to the game, and he never quit trying to come back."

Next April will mark the 25th anniversary of Elder's historic appearance in The Masters. Augusta National officials said this week in response to an inquiry from The Post that they are planning no ceremony to honor Elder during the tournament. A spokesman said the club generally doesn't celebrate significant anniversaries but that Elder would be welcome if he'd like to come.

Masters Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson said in a statement that "Lee Elder will always have a special place in Masters history. He has long been a credit to The Masters and to the game of golf."

Informed yesterday that the club did not plan to commemorate the occasion, Elder said he still fully intends to show up in Augusta next April, just as he came two years ago to see and shed tears of joy over the historic victory of Tiger Woods, the first man of color to win the event.

"I appreciate the gesture" to provide tickets if he wants to come, Elder said when informed of the club's response. "This was history-making, and maybe it's something that could be given a little more thought to. Hopefully, something will happen that will change their minds."

Jim Dent, one of six African Americans on the Senior Tour, said yesterday that Elder's role as a pioneer in opening up the sport in the early 1960s was one reason he continued pursuing a golf career.

"Any time you saw a guy like Lee out there, it was inspiration to keep you going in that same direction," he said. "It was a great thrill for me to see him play. It made you feel so good inside to see him play The Masters. It doesn't surprise me they won't do anything. That's life. They have their reasons, I guess, but they really should do something."

Jerry Osborne, who played on the black amateur circuit in the '60s and now caddies for Gay Brewer, said: "We were all so excited by the fact that he had proven he could win on the PGA Tour. We all knew he had the ability, and The Masters was icing on the cake. Lee is an icon to many of us -- first in The Masters, first to win $1 million, first on the Ryder Cup team [1979]. He's a great gentleman and a great statesman."

Elder does not know how much longer he'll keep traveling the tour, but he was encouraged by three straight scores in the seventies two weeks ago in San Antonio. And, like anyone else who's ever played the game, he knows he can do better next time.

"I think I can still play," he said. "Because of the eye, I have not been able to work at the game. I've got to start working harder on it, and I will. There's still a lot of things I'd like to do. I always had faith I'd get better, and now it looks like I have."

CAPTION: Lee Elder is playing on the Senior PGA Tour after suffering from double vision in his left eye.