Jack Nicklaus, completing what he called "the best major tournament I have ever played from tee to green," won the 107th British Open golf championship yesterday by two strokes.

Nicklaus, whose last major victory was the United States PGA in 1975, shot a bogey-free three-under-par 69 for a 72-hole total of 281, seven under par.

Two strokes behind in second place were Nicklaus' American compatroiots Ray Floyd, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw - and upstart Simon Owen of New Zealand, the man Nicklaus ultimately had to duel down the testing stretch in one of the most magnificent finishes in the oldest of golf tournaments.

At the end, there was Nicklaus striding triumphantly down the 18th fairway of the venerable Old Course at St. Adrews - "the home of golf," as he put it, "the place where it all began and where it means the most to win."

He was applauded wildly by a record gallery of more than 26,000 people who jammed two huge grandstands and evtry nearby balcony and window that afforded a view of the closing hole.

These are the people whose ancestors invented golf. They ervere the Old Course and appreciate Nicklaus as perhaps the finest player in the history of their beloved game.His round yesterday, and the noisy adulation they showed on him at the end of it, had to bring goosepumps to even the most hardened, flinty victim of Hell Bunker.

This was Nivklaus' third British Open conquest, him 17th major title. But he did not have it in his grasp until the 71st hole - the notoriously difficult Road Hole which left an unforgettable imprint on this championship. After making bogey five there the previous three days. Nicklaus fashioned a solid four this time to close out Owen.

Not even Gerald Fairly, who many years ago wrote a mystery novel about a murder in the gallery at St. Andrews during the final round of the British Open, could have concocted a story line to surpass the one that unfolded here this week.

Sonsider this scenario, for it is the stuff of best sellers:

The proud veteran champion, Nicklaus, who has won more Grand Slam events than any other golfer, is aching to disprove the critics who insist he doesn't have the nerve or concentration to withstand pressure anymore at age 38.

He is back at the Old Course - "my favorite place in golf" - where he last won a British Open, eight years ago, ending a similiar three-year drought.

Having made a subtle adjustment in his grip, he comes to Scotland's east coast a week early and prepares religiously, attending to every detail, playing more practice rounds than any of his rivals in order to reacquaint himself with the idiosyncrasies of one of the world's most demanding seaside links.

For three rounds, he hits the ball exquisitely. He hardly makes a mistake between tee and green, studiously avoids the 110 bunkers and other hazards of a maddeningly wonderful course, but cannot make a birdie putt. He leaves so many on the lip in the first two rounds that it starts to drive him crazy.

He begins the final round one stroke behind a lanky Englishman. Peter Oosterhuis, who has not won a tournament in four years, and the defending champion, Tom Watson.

Elementary, Holmes. This is the same Watson who a year ago relegated Nicklauds to his sixth second-place British Open finish by chipping in from the fringe of the 15th green at Turnberry, shooting 65-65 the last two days to beat Nidklaus' 65-66.

Nihklaus is most worried about Watson, playing immediately behind him in the last twosome. Meanwhile, he is paired for the final round with the obscure, mysterious Simon Owen - Obviously the great pretender in the cluster of 18 players bunched within four strokes of the lead.

Nicklaus has never even met this phantom Kiwi who shot the low score of the third round: 67. They are introduced on the first tee, before hitting off into a wind that has swung around from eaterly to westerly after three days.

Nicklaus, puffed up, sinks an 18-foot birdie putt on the third hold to grab a share of the lead. Watson, the danger behind, bogeys the fourth and two of the next three holes as well to fall quickly out of the picture.

Up ahead, the solid pro named Tom Kite goes five under par to tie for the lead. Oosterhuis, outplaying Watson, hangs in. Things are tense for the old champion because he is still leaving good putts within inches of the cup.

The unknown Owen - 27 years old, from a town called Wanganui that no one has ever heard of, who barely scrapes through the qualifying round to earn his first crack at the Old Course - does exactly what is expected of him.

He bogeys the fourth and sixth holes to start dropping out of the hunt.

But he makes a lovely pitch-and-run at the ninth hole, sinks an 18-foot birdie putt, and suddenly grows inspired. He plays with the loose, easy swing of a man who has nothing to lose. He birdies the 9th, 10th, 12th and 14th holes to catch NicWklaus, who had taken a one-stroke lead with birdie on 12.

Simon Owen tied for the lead of the British Open after 68 holes? Can it be? Someone in the gallery yells, "Cone on. Kiwi!" but he overhits his second shot to the fringe of the 15th green, 60 feet past the pin. Nicklaus is on the green, 30 feet away from a birdie on this 413-yard par 4.

Owen chips and his ball hits and runs toward the flag. A voice pierces the gathering mumur of the crowd: "Get in . . . get in." The ball hits the pin and drops, much as Watson's did a year ago on the 15th hole at Turnberry.

Owen raises his right arm, then does a little dance, practically clicking his heels. He has birdied five of the last seven holes. Nicklaus leaves his putt one foot short.

Owen leads by a stroke with three holes to play.

Nicklaus' mind flashes back to Watson's chip. Momentary panic. But the experience of being the old champion helps him keep calm. He tells himself to roll up the sleeves of his sweater and get to work.

"He's never been in this situation before. I have. If I finish strong, I should win," Nicklaus thinks to himself.

He attacks the 16th hole, a 382-yarder called "Corner Of The Dyke." A perfect three-wood off the tee, on the left hand side of the fairway, and a gentle pitching wedge put him within six feet of the hole. Nicklaus smiles.

Owen has a delicate 40-foot wedge for his second shot - a difficult one to judge because his adrenalin is surging. He hits too hard, over the hump-backed green and onto a secondary tee for the 17th hole.

Having made so many fine recovery shots earlier in the round, Owen is hopeful. But his chip does not have the legs to climb a swale to the center of the green. His ball rolls back down: two putts for bogey. Nicklaus holes his birdie putt. A two-stroke shift, and he is back in the lead.

They go to what many golfers consider the toughest par 4 on earth, the Road Hole. It has yielded just half-a-dozen birdies in four days, and inflicted bogey or worse on two of every three men playing it.

Nicklaus suppresses his urge to shoot boldly for the flag, which lies nearly unapproachable, far back on a green guarded by the Road and the Road Bunker.

He plays a three-wood down the left side of the fairway, and bounces a six-iron to the front of the green. His ball nearly gets over the embankment at the front of the green, but slides back down and leaves him the most difficult of 50-foot putts - from practically the same position from which he three-putted for his only bogey of the third round.

The impetuous Owen, meanwhile, has taken a driver to the tee. Nicklaus knows this is a mistake. "If you keep playing the driver off the back-nine tee here, you're going to get caught sooner or later," he says to himself. "You're going to get burned."

People are watching breathlessly from the crowded balconies of the Old Course Hotel. On the back balconies, 10 kitchen workers all clad in white - including a row of seven chefs in stovepipe hats - are among those peering down. Owen pulss his drive into the left rough.

The chefs know he is the soup.

"Keep calm," someone yells. But Owen over hits his second shot, past the green and across the road. It comes to rest on the narrow strip of grass between the road and the wall.

He has a diabolical chip, but hits it hard into the swail behind the pin, using the natural contour of the green. His ball rolls back and stops six feet from the hole. He could save par.

Nicklaus lingers over his agonizing putt. He remembers from eight years ago that this green is much faster when the hole plays downwind, as it does now. Most observers think he strokes the ball too cautiously but it runs and runs . . . stopping 10 inches from the hole, ded on line. "I'm glad I have a good memory," he says to himself.

Owen misses his six-foot putt, and staggers off the green. No dance, Nicklaus taps in. He has a two-stroke lead, and know that if he plays the 18th safely, he is home free.

He hits a three-wood off the tee, laying up just in front of the "Valley of Sin" - the depression in front of the green - and makes his euphoric walk down the fairway the applause swelling deafeningly.

Nicklaus has one last anxious moment, pitching 35 feet past the hole on 18, but he gets down in two putts and walks off with the trophy.

That was the story.

In trying the gallent Owen for record, Crenshaw double-bogeyed the fourth hole but made five birdies on the back nine. Kite birdied the 12th to go five under par and stayed there, and Floyd birdied four of the last six holes.

Oosterhuis' challenge ended with a bogey on the 17th, and Watson shot 75 to finish five strokes behind.

Nicklaus was jubiliant.

"I don't think I've ever hit the ball this solidly, this consistently, shot after shot for four rounds," he said. "I was very proud of myself for being able to do what I did and finish the way I finished."

It was an unforgettable British Open, and it had to end this way.