The choke was not on Tom Watson today. The 27-year-old Missourian, often secured of wilting under fourth-round pressure, sank a 16-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to break a deadlock with Jack Nicklaus and go on to capture, the 41st Masters championship over the Augusta National golf course.

Watson finished with a 67 for a 22 underpar 278, two strokes better than the master himself, Nicklaus, who was looking for his sixth Masters title. Nicklaus was a hole ahead of Watson on the 18th when he heard the roars behind him. Nicklaus took a bogey and fell two shots back.

Lee Elder had a finishing 71 for a one-under-par 287. He was four under after 15 holes but went three over on the last three holes. He hed one consolation, however. He finished in a tie for 19th place which means he'll met an automatic invitation next year without having to earn his way through other categories. The top 24 players and ties automatically quality for the following year's Masters.

Nicklaus put on his own charge with a 66, the best score of the day. On the way Nicklaus zipped by several other challengers, including Rik. Massengale, Tom Kite and Hale Irwin.

Nicklaus was paired with Ben Crenshaw, the 25-year-old gallery favorite, who was tied with Watson for the lead before the final round. Crenshaw, runner-up here last year, hacked a round of 76 to finish 10 strokes-behind.

Raymond Floyd, who tied the record at 271 last year, finished with 285. The tournament turned out as Watson had predicted: "A real dog race." Watson and Massengale played together and it seemed that neither would yield.

While Crenshaw was losing six shots to Watson on eight holes, Massengale stayed with the tour's leading money-winner this year, hole ater hole. Watson had 32 for the front nine and so did Massengale, who had started the day one shot behind. Massengale bogeyed the 10th hole but so did Wasonia and embarrassing manner, missing a two-foot putt.

That brought the cry from the gallery that the choke was on. Although Watson has compiled a brilliant record, winning the British Open in 1975 and back-to-back tournaments this year, he has had a reputation of yielding easily to tournament pressure.

He lost fourth-round leads this year in the Tournament Players Championship and the Heritage, and was leading the 1974 U.S. Open going into the last round when he took a finishing 79.

Watson remarked about his penchant for blowing a lead in the final 18. "I've thought about it, sure," he said Saturday night."I know that the biggest person I have to overcome is myself."

Watson a graduate of Stanford University, majored in psychology. He joined the tour in 1972 and struck it rich the next year when he won nearly $75,000. Since then, he has never failed to win at least $135,000 a year. He already has topped that figure this year with more than $175,000.

There was some drama not seen by the television audience. At the 13th hole, Nicklaus made a birdie to put him 10 under par and tying him, for the moment, with Watson, who had not yet played the hole.

"When I sank the patt," Nicklaus said, "I waved the way you do to the crowd when you're pleased with yourself. Somehow, Tom thought I was holding up the ball and saying: 'Hey, look at me.' We discussed it on the 18th green when I was congratulating him and I said: 'You know I wouldn't do a thing like that (show a man up).' Tom apologized and that was it."

Watson confirmed the story. "It was a bit childish of me," he said. 'I got angry with Jack and then later I got hold of myself. I thought he had waved at me. But I was out of line and I apologized."

Watson said he didn't quite know how he felt. "I'll know tomorrow," he said."Right now I'm euphoric, on Gloud- 9, I feel up. I don't feel a bit tired but I know I won't be able to sleep tonight.

"I knew Nicklaus was charging. After that incident at the 13th, I followed Jack and birdied the hole, too, going back to one shot up. I knew I had to keep making birdies to keep him away."

Nicklaus admitted that the roar of the crowd from Watson's putt on the 17th changed his strategy.

"I figured there would be a playoff," Nicklaus said, "I hit a great drive and figured I'd hit the ball in the middle of the green. But that birdie changed my strategy and I had to gamble. So I wound up in the bunker and took a bogey. I hit a six-iron fat when I wanted to hit it soft and have a shot at a birdie."

Nicklaus chided the Masters committee for pairing him with Crenshaw. "I was not on the leader board with him," explained Nicklaus, who started the day three strokes back to Crenshaw and Watson.

"Ben didn't play well at ll. He was pulling for me and I felt sorry for him but when you're out there you've got to think of yourself."

Nicklaus started with birdies on the first two holes. He made a 20-footer on the first hole and then two-putted the par-five second for his second birdie. He shaved another stroke from par on the 530-yard eight when he put a one-iron on the green and two-putted.

He made a great comeback putt for a par on the 11th after he was in the sand. He came out 12 feet from the pin on his third shot and holed it. "That really put me in the tournament," Nicklaus said.

He birdied the 12th from 12 feet and got two more birdies on the two remaining par fives before Watson caught up with him.

Watson got a break on the first hole when he drive hit a tree and bounced out of the woods. He eventually got a par. He had a string of four straight birdies from the fifth through the eighth holes, all of putts within 15 feet. He was out in 32.

After bogeying the 10th hole, Watson began to realize that Massengale, who started to fade, was not the threat. It was Nicklaus. Watson birdied the 13th when he put a two-iron three feet away. But he three-putted the 14th for a boggey. He birdied the par five 15th when he reached the green in two and two-putted. Then came the clincher on the 17th.