Before this week's Kemper Open golf tournament, Rich Beem was trying to scratch out a living at the sport's highest level -- and not doing it very well at all.

The $24,590 he had earned in 11 previous events this year, his first 11 on any major pro circuit, amounted to petty cash on the Professional Golfers' Association Tour. Had it not been for the $70,000 to $80,000 he had been given by 30 members of the El Paso Country Club at the start of the season, he might have been living on fast food, staying in cheap motels or even sleeping in the back of his car once or twice, as he did more often than he cared to remember while trying to survive in low-level pro tournaments not so many years ago.

But after four magical days and 274 strokes, he walked off the 18th green of Tournament Players Club at Avenel in fist-pumping triumph yesterday -- and his life started to change in ways that only began with a check for $450,000.

For example, there was the result of his second post-victory call from a cellular phone on the 18th green. After speaking to his father in New Mexico, he dialed the grillroom of the El Paso Country Club to say he would be buying drinks all around.

"I hate to see the tab," Beem said, "but I don't care. I've got a lot of money now."

He also has an opportunity to put some order in his life. He can take not only a few days off but also a few tournaments if he chooses. By virtue of his victory here, he will be able to enter virtually any PGA Tour event between now and the 2001 Kemper Open. In addition, he automatically is entered in other major events such as the season-opening Mercedes Championships, where this year's last-place finisher got more than $38,000.

"I'm super fortunate that this dream isn't going to end after just one year," said Beem, 28, who earned his way on to the PGA Tour this year by finishing eighth in its qualifying school. "I'm just happy to have a job the next two years. That makes me really happy."

This from a fellow who at one point had quit golf and sold cellular phones in Seattle.

If Beem were to continue this hot ride and win again, it might well give him entry to fabulously lucrative endorsements and invitations to foreign tournaments that pay handsomely just for showing up. These appearance fees, which the PGA Tour does not permit, can run from $200,000 or so to the estimated $1 million Tiger Woods commanded in a recent tournament in Germany.

Also, elite golfers are able to earn at least $120,000 just to wear a certain glove. More than a few equipment deals -- clubs, bag, balls, glove and hat -- run to close to $1 million annually.

While Beem probably doesn't have one of those arrangements in his immediate future, his victory does give him the option of signing a personal services contract with the Kemper Open's corporate sponsor, Kemper Insurance Companies. The contract would pay him an estimated $100,000 over the next year for wearing the company's logo on his golf apparel or putting it on his bag.

Beem is part of a lengthy list of players who have claimed their first PGA Tour victory at the Kemper Open. He also is the third first-time winner on the tour this season and the second rookie to do it. Carlos Franco of Paraguay was the first, winning in New Orleans earlier this month.

But Beem also is more animated than the typical PGA Tour player, and that made him a crowd favorite from the first day at the Kemper, when he shot a 5-under-par 66 and grabbed the first-round lead.

Little-known players frequently lead tournaments, even majors such as the U.S. Open. Most of the time, they find their level and drop back among the grinders trying to keep their tour cards. But Beem didn't fold. Not in the second round, or the third, or the fourth, when many thought that surely would happen.

Beem admitted to being nervous, to having bought a bottle of Pepto-Bismol yesterday morning and taken a couple of belts before the round. He also put the bottle in his golf bag, just in case.

His first hole was splendid, a birdie after a 35-foot putt that broke a tie with playing partner Tommy Armour III and gave him a lead he held the remainder of the tournament. He had a four-shot lead through the 12th hole but made a bogey on the par-5 No. 13 after hitting his second shot into a water hazard.

"My legs were about out walking up the hill" to the 16th green, Beem said. "I was so tired physically and mentally."

None of the others on the leader board could pressure Beem as much as they would have liked, and he had the sort of lead, two shots, on the 18th tee that made even a stomach relaxer unnecessary. Needing a bogey 5 to win, that's what he made.

Beem soon was in the arms of his girlfriend, Amy Onick, and readying himself for another uncertain ride in golf -- but one so much more pleasant than the one he had been on when this week began.

CAPTION: Rich Beem's win earned him a place on the PGA Tour for two years.