Rich Beem is what sports used to be about and, sometimes, still is. He is tied for the lead of the Kemper Open after three rounds, a minor fact that could go a long way toward transforming the rest of his life. After all, the PGA Tour rookie's big distinction at the moment is that he is the defending pro-am champion of Truth or Consequences, N.M. If he, somehow, against all odds, should win the $450,000 prize today, it would alter the conditions of his existence more than, say, any megabucks lottery bonanza.

Beem would awaken on Memorial Day to a two-year tour exemption, plus invitations to The Masters and the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii, where the last-place finisher wins $25,000. What does a tour win mean? The golf world spreads the big-time, spoil-you-to-death life out in front of you like an endless buffet of perks and possibilities. You're not only on the gravy train. There is a decent chance, assuming you've got some game and some grit, that you'll stay on it right through the Senior PGA Tour. It's The Big Break.

Instead of bubbling about himself, however, about his five birdies yesterday or his 66-67-71 -- 204 score, Beem can't wait to tell everybody about his "awesome" caddie, Steve Duplantis.

Today Beem wants to keep playing well so his new soulmate of a bag-bearer -- who carried for No. 3 money-winner Jim Furyk until last month -- won't dump him for some big-name star. Beem wants to show his caddie that he's got the goods.

"I promised Steve I'd try as hard as I could on every shot," Beem said earnestly. "We are going to carry this thing into tomorrow. Watch out. We are going to have some fun." If the 28-year-old Beem wins, he may ask that Duplantis's name be engraved on the trophy next to his own.

Beem also wants to make sure you know all about his best friend David Wyatt, who is equally "awesome," if not more so. Wyatt took the red-eye from Seattle just so he could root for his good buddy and provide one friendly screaming face in the crowd. You suspect the infectious, candid, boyish Beem would tend to inspire those feelings.

"Let me tell you a little story about him, if you don't mind," said Beem, interrupting the third news conference of his life to tell you about somebody else. Before you know it, you've learned that Wyatt, who has ridden a motorcycle 180 mph, had traveled to 47 of the 48 continental states -- and was also a drug addict -- by the time he was 16. But he has been sober for 21 years. When you meet Beem, you meet everybody he loves.

"David lives every day like there is no tomorrow. . . . I love him. He is the neatest guy I have ever met, neatest personality. . . . I am so glad he is here."

Don't forget Beem's girlfriend, Amy Onick, the fifth-grade teacher from Seattle. Beem's concerned about her, too. How's he going to find time to show her the downtown D.C. monuments like he promised and get her to a decent restaurant, not the glorified burger joint he has taken her to the last three nights that's "behind the Red Lobster and the bowling alley."

"It's a little scary," said Amy of these past three days, which have been utterly beyond belief for a golfer. After all, Beem has never won any tournament of any consequence -- if you don't count a $5,000 first prize in Houston last year.

"We're real proud of him," added Amy. "He's pretty determined. If he starts off . . . strong, he won't give it away."

Of course, we'll see about that. In 1996, a comparable heart-warming unknown named Jay Williamson shot 66-67-68 to take a one-shot lead into Sunday here at TPC at Avenel. That big-money golf buffet was spread out before him, too. He shot 79, finished tied for 23rd, won only $12,642.85, then slipped to 317th on the money list in '97 and was off the tour in '98. He has his card again, but isn't in the top 100 money-winners this season.

So, to be honest, this "nothing to lose" business isn't quite honest. In real life, opportunities are there to be taken, not just "enjoyed for the moment." Although, ironically, enjoying the moment often produces the best results.

When co-leader Tommy Armour III and Bill Glasson, who is two shots back, hear Beem's name, they talk nice, but their eyes look like they see a steak dinner. The book says this kid is supposed to fold up. But the book isn't always right.

Twenty years ago, an unknown golfer led the prestigious Doral Open every day. He was young, bumptious, honest, funny, generous, green as grass and in miles over his head, just like Beem. Every day, everybody was sure that this sawed-off interloper would choke his brains out. Instead, on Sunday, Mark McCumber beat Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd. He's retired now with a place in the top 50 money-winners ($5.3 million) in history.

Sometimes, the "nobody" has a little something different about him -- a confidence, an edge, an unexpected sense of belonging when the lights go up, like McCumber. Beem may have it, too. Yesterday, he was bothered by several cellular phones ringing in the gallery on the back nine. A couple of years ago -- when he quit golf after going broke on the Nike Tour, when he followed an old flame to Seattle to start over, putting that cursed golf dream behind him -- Beem became a cell phone salesman.

So, did that ringing really bother him? Will it bug him today?

"Nah," said Beem. Instead, he just calmed himself by identifying the types of phones that were driving him nuts. "A couple of them were Motorolas for sure. . . . Motorolas just ring. . . . A couple were Nokias. They have these different chimes that play tunes. . . . But it wasn't the phones that distracted me. The bad shots were all my own fault."

Be that as it may, in the final round, Beem has a request for his growing gallery. "[Most] cell phones have that [soundless] vibrating mode."

So, please, switch to vibrating mode. Rich needs all the help he can get. New caddie. Old friend. Best girl. If that's not quite enough, maybe you can help. For further instructions, see diagram on box.