On the morning after what he described as "easily the greatest day of my life," Rich Beem was packing up his room at the Gaithersburg Best Western yesterday, taking his girlfriend for a whirlwind sightseeing tour of the nation's capital and still having a hard time believing he was the champion of the Kemper Open.

He and Amy Onick went out to dinner last night in Georgetown, along with his best friend David Wyatt, a former co-worker at a Seattle cellular phone store, to celebrate Beem's one-shot victory over Bill Glasson and Bradley Hughes in a pressure-filled final round.

As they were eating a late meal, they found a television set in the restaurant and tuned it in to ESPN to watch the Kemper highlights on the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" show.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't actually believe it happened until I saw it on `SportsCenter,' " Beem said. "We believe everything we see on TV, so I guess it must be true."

Beem said some people in the restaurant recognized him from the tournament, even though he had taken off his golf hat and was wearing glasses instead of the contacts he wears to play.

"I guess we had a few extra drinks sent over to the table," he said. "That was kind of nice."

Beem's unexpected victory had come on a course he had never seen until he arrived to practice last Tuesday. In his first year on tour after winning his card at qualifying school last November, Beem had no great expectations coming to Washington other than to make the cut and earn a check. He had missed the cut in six of his previous seven tournaments, including the last five, and had only $24,000 in earnings.

His victory Sunday was worth a first-place check of $450,000, a crystal trophy and a wide variety of fringe benefits, including the all-important two-year exemption to play on the PGA Tour.

Kemper Insurance officials also want to sign him to a personal services contract to wear their logo on his hat and bag, good for at least $100,000. And if he should happen to win any of the three remaining majors, he would get a $200,000 bonus. "I didn't even know about that until I read it in the paper this morning," Beem said.

More important, though, "I won't have to worry about where I'm going to be playing for the next two years. I'll be able to pick and choose my events and know that I'm in the field. Even after getting through Q school, there are certain events I wouldn't have been able to get into this year. Now, it's my choice, and that takes a lot of pressure off. I'll play a lot this summer. I like playing in hot weather, and take some time off in the fall."

Beem will skip Jack Nicklaus's Memorial event this weekend because he and his new caddie, Steve Duplantis, both will have laser eye surgery this week in suburban Maryland, a procedure they both had planned long before Beem's weekend heroics. He will play in U.S. Open qualifying in Memphis June 4, trying to get in the field at Pinehurst for his first major championship the following week.

"Obviously this will change some things in my life," he said yesterday. "But it's not going to change me as a person. I think my lifestyle may change a little. I'm sure there will be a few more demands on my time, and a little less time for other things. But this is what you dream about your whole life, and I'd like to think I'll be able to handle it."

Beem said he has locked up Duplantis as his permanent caddie for the rest of the 1999 season and confirmed his agreement with him called for Duplantis to get 10 percent of his winner's check, 7 percent of a top 10 finish and 5 percent of any other winnings.

"That's one check I'm very happy to write," Beem said. "Heck, he made more money yesterday than I'd won all season up to this point."

Kemper Notes: Pete Cleaves took over as the tournament's general chairman, marking the official retirement of Ben Brundred, who has held the position for 20 years. Brundred still will have an active role as chairman of the event's advisory board. . . .

Sunday's attendance of 45,000 was down about 5,000 from a year ago, a drop tournament officials attributed to the event being played on Memorial Day weekend. Next year, the tournament will be played two weeks before the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and should be able to attract more players from the European tour trying to acclimate to U.S. conditions before the Open.