When one last birdie putt, this one from 25 feet, dove to the bottom of the cup at the 18th hole yesterday, Rich Beem raised both his arms to celebrate a remarkable round that left him three shots ahead going into the final 36 holes of the Kemper Open.

Beem is blossoming at TPC at Avenel, even if he had never played in a PGA Tour or Nike tournament before winning his card in November in qualifying school. A 4-under 67 gave him a two-day total of 9-under 133 and a three-stroke cushion over Bradley Hughes (68), Tommy Armour III (68) and Dave Stockton Jr. (66), all at 6-under 136.

The very surprising first-round leader -- if only because he had missed the cut in his last five starts -- will earn his first paycheck since March 7 at the Honda Classic in Coral Springs, Fla. He is only the third rookie this season to lead at the halfway point, joining Rory Sabbatini (BellSouth) and Eric Booker (Honda). Neither man won, but Beem said he is not thinking about that possibility.

"I'm having too much fun being in the moment," Beem said. "If it all comes down to the wire on the last nine holes and I have the opportunity to win, I might start thinking about it. But right now, it's just too much fun doing what I'm doing."

The Kemper Open has produced a number of first-time winners, including Bill Glasson, a two-time champion trying to join Tom Weiskopf as the only three-time champions. With a semi-struggling 70 yesterday, Glasson moved into contention despite two bogeys on the last four holes and finished tied for fifth with Jim Carter (69) at 5-under 137.

Steve Stricker (67), who won his first event here in '96, was in a group of four at 138. Corey Pavin (72), only a shot off the lead after the opening round, was among six at 3-under 139. And defending champion Stuart Appleby (66) got back into contention at 2-under 140.

The cut of 3-over 145 allowed 75 players to return for the weekend, but two-time champion Tom Kite (146), '91 winner Billy Andrade (149) and John Daly (155) did not make it.

Beem, 28, from El Paso, will have a magnificent holiday weekend no matter happens over the next two days. His girlfriend, Amy Onick, and several college friends were in the crowd to watch a wild ride of eight birdies, including the last two holes, two bogeys and a double bogey. After getting a bogey and double bogey at the fifth and sixth holes, respectively, Beem appeared to be a one-day wonder. But he made a critical birdie at No. 8 with a five-footer and was quickly back on track.

"This is my first experience ever with a lot of people watching, and I know the cameras are going to be out there," he said. "But I think I'm strong enough to zone most of that out. I'll certainly find out tomorrow for the first time in my life if I'm really strong enough to do it all, but I believe in myself, and I believe I have the will and strength to do that."

Beem is not alone in having those traits among the players on the leader board. Glasson has one of the strongest wills in the game, if only because his body has broken down so many times. Even now, his surgically repaired elbows still do not allow him to hit balls buried in thick rough or burrowed in bunkers.

A 16-year PGA Tour veteran who also has had knee and back problems that nearly forced him to consider retiring, Glasson nevertheless put himself in the weekend hunt with four birdies on the first 11 holes before staggering in with three bogeys over the last seven.

Glasson did not play here last year because he had not recovered completely from surgery to reattach a tendon in his left elbow. He had the same surgery on the right elbow in '96 and was the tour's comeback player of the year the following season with the highest earnings of his career ($926,000).

Glasson said he believes his physical problems may have been an advantage, because every time he gets hurt, he is home recuperating and gaining a renewed zest for the game.

"With me, I play a year or two, and I'm off for six months," he said. "So I still look forward to playing. When I come back to play, I appreciate the opportunity because I've been close several times to not playing again. I always come back mentally ready to play."

Glasson certainly looked the part through his first 11 holes yesterday, when he climbed to 8 under and at one point had a three-shot lead on the morning field. The first glitch surfaced at No. 12, when he pushed a 3-wood into deep rough down the right side of the hole and never thought about trying to hit his second shot onto the green.

Those weak elbows and a plugged lie forced him to use a wedge just to lay up, and his third shot left him a 20-footer for par. He missed for his first bogey of the day. He needed three putts from about 70 feet at the 15th, then three-putted again from 35 feet at the 17th before barely missing an 18-foot birdie putt on the last hole.

Still, Glasson said, there is good reason to be encouraged. His longtime teacher, former Congressional head pro Kent Cayce, has been working with him since Glasson arrived in town Monday and corrected several swing problems.

"He just lost some of his timing," Cayce said. "We hooked up again on Monday and worked on his rhythm and balance, just a couple of mechanical moves, little things so he can hit it long and hard without really working to hit it long and hard."

Glasson is trying to talk Cayce into accompanying him full-time. A part-owner of the Laurel Golf Center and one of the area's most widely respected teachers, Cayce said he is still thinking about it, but for now he is content to see his number one pupil move into contention.

"He fixes my swing, and I play golf," Glasson said. "If either one of us crosses the line, we're in trouble. I don't worry about my swing, he does. It's a lot easier to play golf. I'd say 50 percent of my problems go away when he's out here. There's such a fine line out here between being on the leader board or missing the cut."

No one knows that better than Beem, now brimming with confidence even if he has earned only $24,000 so far this year.

"No, I'm not really surprised," he insisted. "I know I can play like I have over the last two days. The main evidence is how I played Q school last fall. I hit the ball in the middle of the fairway, knocked it on some greens and made some putts. Hats off to [caddie] Steve [DuPlantis], to keep me focused and my head on straight. Where I could have lost it a little bit, he kept my spirits up, and we just kept rolling."

CAPTION: After not playing in PGA or Nike tour tournament before winning card in November, Rich Beem is on a roll after two rounds at Kemper.

CAPTION: "I know I can play like I have over the last two days," says Rich Beem, who will earn his first paycheck since March 7.