At the Prestwick Golf Club, where the first 12 British Open championships were played and history is revered, people were talking about Tom Watson's one-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry Saturday as one of the greatest triumphs ever in golf's oldest tournament.

Watson, paired with Nicklaus for the last two rounds, started even, kept falling behind, once by three strokes, and finally took the lead for the first time with a birdie on the 71st hole. He then pitched his seven-iron second shot on the par-four finishing hole 175 yards, to within two feet of the pin, and calmly sank his birdie putt after Nicklaus had holed a 32-footer to sustain the tingling drama to the last possible second.

Watson shot 65-65 to Nicklaus's 65-66 in their remarkable two-day, head-to-head duel. the 27-year-old Stanford graduate captured his third major title (he had won the British Open at Carnoustie in 1975 and the Masters this year) with a 72-hole total of 268. That was eight shots better than the previous British Open record of 276 set by Arnold Palmer at Troon in 1962 and matched by Tom Weiskopf on the same course in 1973.

"It was fantastic wasn't it?" nodded Frank Rennie, the pro at Prestwick, 30 miles north of Turnberry on West Scotland's Ayrshire Coast. Rennie failed to qualify for the 106th Open on the Ailsa course of the Turnberry Hotel, but he marveled at Watson's 12-under par performance and imperviousness to pressure as he relegated two-time champion Nicklaus to his sixth second-place finish.

There were only a few men in the smoking room of the old tan and gray stone Prestwick clubhouse late this morning, but it seemed an appropriate place to savor the Watson-Nicklaus epic, which is bound to be celebrated as one of the greatest of major-tournament confrontations.

It is in this room, with its high ceiling, simple brass chandeliers and comfortably worn wood and leather chairs, that the original British Open prize is displayed: a red Morocco belt with silver plaques retired by Tom Morris Jr. after his third consecutive victory in 1870.

A battered old black album contains some of the minutes and socrecards of the 23 Opens played at Prestwick between 1860 and 1925. On the walls are photos, prints and memorabilia, including a handwritten note from James Braid, dated June 24, 1908, donating the ball he used from the third hole to the end of the third round in 1908, the fourth of his five Open victories.

On an adjacent wall is a collection of old clubs - three ancient drivers, a long spoon, mid-spoon, shot spoon, baffy, putter and cleek. In an adjoining room hang portraits of old-time golfers, including Tom Morris Sr., Prestwick's first pre, who was runner-up to his archrival, Willie Park of Musselburgh, in the first championship, and later won four times.

Outside, just off Links Road, is a monument at the site of the original first tee, where on Oct. 17, 1860, Morris, Park, and six other invited pros played 36 holes, three rounds of the 12-hole links, in what was called, "A General Golf Tournament for Scotland."

A year later, the tournament was repeated, with the stipulation that it would henceforth be "Open to the World." Thus, the first true open golf championship was held in 1861.

This is golf country - there are 33 courses along the coast of the Firth of Clyde from Turnberry northward - and the men in the Prestwick clubhouse spoke of the Watson-Nicklaus battle with knowledgeable admiration.

It has been 52 years since the last Open at Prestwick. As Herbert Warren Wind, the great American golf authority, wrote in New Yorker magazine several years ago, "Golf fashions change, and in time the challenges that had principally accounted for Prestwick's celebrity - the long wallops over huge bunkers, like the famous Cardinal, and the blind carries over abrupt ridges with such romantic names as the Alps and the Himalayas - were considered archaic.

"The course was also deemed too short a test for the powerhouse of the 1920s, and after the 1925 Open it was removed from the championshio rotation and more or less enshrined as a museum of what a magnificent golf course looked like back in the era of the gutta-percha golf ball."

Western Scotland continued to be represented by Troon, and this year Turnberry hosted the Open for the first time. The Ailsa course is beautiful, with eight lovely seaside holes, but it did not play up to its championship potential because wind was uncaracteristically lacking and the rough lining its narrow fairways was disappointingly light and unpunishing, the result of a long dry spell.

The Open will undoubtedly return to Turnberry, however, because 80,000 spectators attended despite the area's relatively difficult access from major population centers. When it does, certain improvement suggested by this year's experience will surely be implemented.

In the meantime, Turnberry's first Open will live long in memory for Mark Hayes' second-round 63, two strokes better than the previous single-round record set by Henry Cotton in 1934 and matched eight times in subsequent years; for the frail, 70-year-old Cottob's nostalgic participation, 50 years after his first Open appearance: for holes-in-one by Hubert Green and Martin Foster; for Arnold Palmer, 47, jauntily covering the last 27 holes in 99 strokes after switching to a cross-handed putting stroke on the seventh hole of the third round.

And, most of all, for Watson vs. Nicklaus, the latest in a series of rousing challenger (Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller) to the imperial throne of golf that Nicklaus took from Palmer some 15 years ago. Watson has won the last two battles, at the Masters in Augusta in April and now the classic at Turnberry. But there will be more.

"I enjoy these things. They're fun." said Nicklaus, 37, a gracious if disappointed loser. Yes, there will be more.