What's a Kemper Open at Avenel with no rain, no tornados, no quagmires, no traffic jams, no tow trucks in the parking lot and no 6:45 a.m. tee times?

It's a breeze, a sunny bluebird day with traffic zooming at a speed-limit pace and one kite soaring and dipping high in the sky. Tom Kite, that is -- the little man you could overlook in a phone booth but never on a golf course.

Stadium golf strutted its best gaudy stuff at the new Tournament Players Club at Avenel yesterday as many in a crowd of nearly 40,000 watched Kite birdie the 18th hole to take a one-shot lead over Chris Perry entering today's final round of the $700,000 Kemper Open. George Burns trails Kite by three shots. Defending champion Greg Norman and Vardon Trophy winner Scott Hoch are four behind with $120,000 awaiting the winner. Masters champion Larry Mize lurks five back.

As bad as the rest of the week had been -- with a rain-trimmed pro-am, a rain-divided first round and a gruesome marathon 14-hour dawn-to-dusk second round ruined by two-hour traffic jams -- that's just how smooth and sweet this third round turned out to be as Kite shot 68 for a 12-under-par 201 total.

The trim Texan, who has won $3 million on the PGA Tour yet remains one of the least heralded stars in the history of golf, ran in six birdies in midround to achieve a four-shot lead. For a brief moment, only Perry, who has never contended in any Tour event, and Burns (two wins in the last eight seasons) were within seven shots of his pace.

Just as Kite, one of the most consistent par makers ever, seemed to have this Kemper in his grasp, he suffered a shocking pratfall with bogeys at the 15th, 16th and 17th to throw the top prize back in the hat.

"I was playing so well, then all of a sudden it was, 'Where'd those {bogeys} come from?' And let's send 'em back," said Kite. "They were shockers -- more surprises than anything."

Kite may have been a subconscious victim of fatigue. He was one of 50 players who had to tee off at 8:45 a.m. to complete his second round. He made three pars to finish a 69 but it set the stage for a long day with first and last shot more than nine hours apart.

"Anyway, there was lots of excitement -- in both directions. I think I wore out the guy who was carrying our scoreboard," said Kite sheepishly after his round of seven birdies, four bogeys and just seven pars. "He was changing those numbers so fast, up and down, I don't think he knew what was going on.

"But it was all a lot of fun. It's nice to be back in contention and have a chance to do something."

Kite seldom stops doing something. He's fifth on the all-time money list and is the only player to win a tournament in each of the last six years. He's won the Arnold Palmer Award (No. 1 in money) once and the Vardon Trophy for a season's scoring excellence twice. He's been among the sport's elite for 14 straight years, never hitting a slump in a game full of mysterious demises. He'll be in the top 10 for cash in 1987 for the seventh time in eight years. And he's won nine PGA titles, capturing them in every possible way -- from the front, from far behind and in playoffs.

But he's never won a major title or even a semimajor title like the TPC, World Series of Golf or Memorial. Just as Norman seems to attract glory even in defeat, Kite seems to repel fame even when he wins. It's at stops like this Kemper Open where Kite has made his name and his fortune. He's at home.

Kite was never more in his element than during a nine-hole stretch, starting at the fifth hole, during which he made six birdies and no bogeys while missing two other birdie putts by a half-inch in each case. "Those putts defied gravity," said Kite.

The laws of gravity were upheld at Nos. 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 and 13. In fact, Kite burned the edge trying for eagle from just 15 feet at the 479-yard sixth after a mighty 300-yard drive. "Yeah, I'm macho these days. The fairways are hard," he laughed. Kite's birdie putts on his run came from 5, 1, 12, 12, 15 and 4 feet.

"I'm hitting it and putting it so good right now," said Kite. "A few weeks ago, I was so far down in the Tour stats for fairways and greens in regulation that I couldn't believe it. In Dallas {last month} I said, 'I'm going to disregard these stats. I'm starting over.' I've had quite a few rounds in the 60s since then . . .

"I just need one more stretch of golf like five through 13 today," he said. "Why not tomorrow?

". . . I only have one guy to worry about on Sunday -- me," added Kite, who thinks he needs to keep up the attacking game plan that's brought him rounds of 64-69-68. "This is a neat course. You'll see some good scores every day. But if you hit a bad shot, you get punished. It's not like some of our courses where it's hard to make a bogey no matter where you hit it and all you see the last day is pars and birdies.

"Here, you'll see eagles, bogeys and double bogeys. This course is going to produce some exciting finishes over the years."

If that excitement is to arrive on Sunday, the most shocking source would be Perry, the third-year pro who is the son of former 20-game winner Jim Perry and the nephew of 300-game winner Gaylord Perry.

"I was pleased with the way I handled myself today," said Perry, a short hitter who tends to play cautiously on this course where so many others, particularly Norman, gamble almost automatically. "I thought I'd be jittery but I stuck to my strategy."

Perry has only two top 10 finishes to his credit and has never been remotely close to a third-round lead. "Whatever happens happens," he said with a shrug after following his second-round lead (66-66) with a 70. "This is all part of learning the life out here. I enjoyed playing in the last group on TV today. I look forward to playing with Kite on Sunday. You gotta get in there and grind with 'em."

Many an eye will be on 1984 and '86 Kemper champion Norman, whose 64-73-68 progression mirrors his erratic but special play all week. This afternoon he double-bogeyed the ninth hole and bogeyed No. 2 and No. 18. Yet he seemed a threat at every moment as he made seven birdies.

"It's the way the game is going for me right now," said Norman. "I just never quite got the momentum going."

Avenel was built with the possibility of a final-day comeback in mind. A 65 would do wonders for many a player.

"Anybody within five shots of the lead is right in it," said Burns, who was 77th on the money list last year and is "still fighting my way back up out of a hole." Burns, with his deft touch but untrustworthy long swing, could be a one-man psychodrama over the closing holes if he's in the hunt.

While Burns seems a bit unsure whether he's primed to win, Hoch has abundant motivation. Last week he blew to 78 with a Sunday lead when 73 would have won the Memorial. Now, Hoch's in a perfect hidden spot to strike for last-round atonement to settle his score with himself. Aiding hopes of a rally out of the pack is Avenel's increased toughness after two days of sun and wind. Greens aren't so soft and club selection can be tricky. The Kemper stroke average is 72.369 -- more than a stroke over par and quite respectable.

Crowds today were estimated at 35,000 to 40,000 -- as many as Sunday's record-setting final day in '86 at Congressional Country Club. Without question the day's most amazing development, however, was this: traffic at Avenel was absolutely perfect, better than it ever was at Congressional.

At 10 a.m., Sgt. Tom Lantzy, in charge of the Montgomery County police detail, called tournament director Ben Brundred and gave him the word he most wanted to hear. "Ben, things are moving so well," said Lantzy, "that we might even have to enforce the speed limit."

Strange but true. From two-hour delays to two minutes -- in a day.