In a magnificent finish to a two-day head-to-head battle, Tom Watson caugh Jack Nicklaus with a 60-foot putt on the 15th hole and passed him on the next-to-last hole today to win his second British Open championship by one stroke with a record-smashing 72-hole total of 268.

Watson shot 65 today, Nicklaus 66.

Paired together for the second consecutive day, the pretournament favorites again brought out the finest and produced one of the most memorable duels in the history of the British Open, which has been played 106 times since 1360.

Over the last two rounds, it all came down dramatically to man against man, with the madding crowd pressed around them and the rest of the field over some distant fairway far out of sight. Seldom has medal play seemed so much like match play.

And for the second straight afternoon Nicklaus, 37, who has won more major titles than any other golfer struggled with his driver, pull-hooking the ball repeatedly off the tee. But his recovery shots out of the rain-starved and disappointingly light rough of the Turnberry Hotel's Ailsa course and his torrid putting kept him not only in contention, but in the lead most of the way.

Watson, 27, the Masters champion and leading money-winner on the U.S. tour, realized that he was playing much better golf than Nicklaus from tee to green.

It would have been easy for Watson to become discouraged. But the psychology graduate of Stanford proved again, as he did on the final two holes of the Masters in April, that he is as tough a competitor as Nicklaus. Which is to say, as tough as they come.

Watson trailed by three strokes after four holes, but birdied the seventh and eighth to catch up.

He fell two back again after 12, but pulled level by holing a 12-foot birdie putt on the 13th and his 60-footer from 10 feet off the green on the 15th.

He finally took the lead for the first time on the 500-yard, par-five 17th, named "Lang Whang," birdieing it while Nicklaus missed a critical four-foot birdie putt, virtually the only thing he missed on the greens all day.

But even then, Nicklaus conceded nothing. Knowing he needed a birdie on the 431-yard, par-four 18th he hit a bold driver that nearly went into thick gorse to the right of the fairway.

He had a treacherous lie but, ignoring the prickly vegetation as he took the best stance he could, knocked an eight-iron to the back right edge of the green, an incredible shot, and holed a 32-foot putt.

Watson had hit two perfect shots - a one-iron down the safer left side of the right-to-left dogleg and seven-iron dead on line, two feet from the pin, that seemed to wrap up the title he had first won at Carnoustie in 1975. But Nicklaus forced him to make the birdie putt to avoid an 18-hole play-off. Watson tapped his ball dead in the center of the cup, and the premier test of seaside links golf was his again.

"Jack's holing his putt made me a little more nervous about mine, but it didn't seem any longer," said Watson, whose expanding confidence and positive thinking, along with abundant natural gifts, make him the heir-apparent to Nicklaus' throne.

"When Jack got on the green I said to Alf (his caddie Alfie Fyles), 'I have to expect your opponent to do something spectacular and plan on matching it, otherwise you could get complacent and risk a letdown if he makes it."

Considering the intensity of the contest and the occasion, the final two rounds that Watson and Nicklaus concocted were remarkable.

Watson won his fifth tournament of the year, the third gram slam title of his ascending career, with rounds of 68-70-65-65, loping eight strokes off the British Open aggregate record of 276.

That was set by Arnold Palmer in 1962 at Troon, 22 miles north of Turnberry on Western Scotland's Ayrshire coast, and equaled by Tom Weiskopf at Troon in 1973.

It should be remembered that until Thursday, when Mark Hayes shot 63, 65 was the all-time low round in British Open history. Even though there never was any rain and howling wind, 65 is an extraordinary feat.

For nearly the entire championship, Watson trailed Nicklaus, though close enough to be breathing down his neck.

Nicklaus scores were 68-70-65-66 for 269 - 11 under par, good enough for a victory any other year. Instead, the winner of two British opens, three U.S. opens, four PGA and five Masters titles was runner-up for the sixth time.

U.S. Open championship Hubert Green and 1971-72 British Open champ Lee Trevino, who were bunched with Nicklaus and Watson one stroke off the pace at the midway point, finished third and fourth, respectively.

Green shot a 67 today, three under par, for a total of 279, and Trevino came in at 70 to finish one stroke further back.

Ben Crenshaw, who was tied with Watson after three rounds of the Masters but shot a 76 to finish eighth, dropped six strokes to par in the last 10 holes today and finished 75 - 281, tied for fifth with George Burns.

Crenshaw started the day only three strokes behind. After going 18 holes Friday and eight today without a bogey, Crenshaw chipped eight feet past the hole from the right rough on the ninth and missed his putt. He walked over to a hillside next to the green, his back to playing partner Tommy Horton after he holed out, and looked disconsolately out into the blue-green waters of the Firth of Clyde. He was never a factor thereafter.

Palmer, who scorched the back nine in 30 on Friday with his new cross-handed putting stroke, shot a strong 69 today to finish seventh at 288.

But the story this year, and one that will endure, was Watson and Nicklaus challenging each other stroke for stroke and hole for hole answering wonderful birdie putts with ones that were even better.

The crowd of 18,000, which lifted the cumulative attendance for the week to more than 86,000, swarmed from fairway to fairway, becoming so unruly at one stage that the players had to ask marshals for better control. More ropes and stewards were added.

But when spectators found a vantage point, what a show they were treated to Nicklaus made four birdies (Nos. 2, 4, 12, and 18) and no bogeys, which was remarkable considering his driving woes. Watson took two bogeys (No. 2 and 9) and made seven birdies (Nos. 5, 7, 8, 13, 15, 17 and 18).

"I feel totally elated. Possible this is my greatest win, going head-to-head with the greatest player in the world," Watson said after receiving the silver championship cup and a check for $17,200. "It's beyond words. It will probably be a couple weeks before I come down, just like after the Masters."

The 6,500-seat bleachers that form an amphitheater around the 18th green were jammed, and the fairway filled in with stampeding spectators behind Watson and Nicklaus.

"Jack Nicklaus is a real champion. His record in the major tournaments speaks for itself. But it takes real guts to play that well when you're driving badly," Watson said later. "That's what I marveled at - he didn't drive well and still played magnificent golf.

"The key shot had to be holing out on 15. I was worried about getting down in two and decided to putt instead of chip. I just wanted to get close. It hit the right side of the cup and could have lipped out. You have to be a little lucky from 60 feet.

"Every shot was important. There really was no letup. I couldn't afford to make a mistake, so it's difficult to isolate key shots," Watson added.

Still, several stand out:

Watson's 16-foot birdie putt on the fifth, after he had missed makeable six-to-eight-footers on the first and fourth and Nicklaus had holed a 30-footer on the fourth to go three strokes in front, his biggest lead of the four days.

Watson's tricky eight-foot putt, downhill left to right, to save a par three on the sixth after blasting out of a bunker.

His 250-foot fairway driver to the green on the 598-yard seventh, named "Roon the Ben", the longest hole on the course. That was before the 15-knot wind, across the hole from the sea, died down, leaving the back nine to be played in brilliant sunshine and relative calm.

"I really burned it. I couldn't have reached it with a three-wood," said Watson. Then he two-putted from 50 feet for his birdie and rolled in a 20-footer on the next hole to get even.

Nicklaus firm, 22-foot uphill putt, right to left for a birdie three at the 391-yard 12th, to go two strokes up again after Watson had bogeyed the ninth.

Watsons wedge out of the light rough on the right side of a characteristically narrow fairway and 12-foot birdie putt on the 411-yard 11th, coming right back again. "Every time I looked like I was pulling away Tom reversed it," Nicklaus was to say later.

Watson's 60-footer on the 15th, which he guided into the hole with a little original Scottish jig as his wife, Linda, let out a scream of delight.

Nicklaus' miss from five feet at the 17th, where he had botched a crucial three-footer on Friday. "I hit a good putt but it stayed straight," Nicklaus said. "It's one of those things that happens."

Watson's one-iron for safety from the tee and seven-iron to within two feet on the 18th, where Nicklaus also made his last great putt, a fitting climax to a splendid day.

When Watson sank his final putt. Fyles, who first caddied for him when he won a Carnoustie two years ago, embraced him. Then Nicklaus went over, shook hands, and put his arm around Watson's shoulder.

They walked off together as they had played the final 36 holes, entwined with dignity and mutual respect.