As Tom Watson's final five-iron shot floated toward the 18th green at Augusta National, checking up safely pin-high in the right, the huge crowd let out a roar.

Their gutty golf darling was home free, winner of his second Masters tournament, and a man-to-man victor over Jack Nicklaus, to boot. All Watson needed was a routine two putts for a final 71, a 280 total and a two-stroke triumph over Nicklaus (72) and Johnny Miller (68).

Actually, this is a lie. The bare facts of what Watson called his most "indescribably delicious" victory are true, but the embellishments are false.

To be accurate, the crowd was not so terribly huge.

When Nicklaus, who managed a tenacious but homely par round this hot afternoon, had burned the lip at the last hole with a 30-foot birdie attempt which stopped two inches the hole, most of the mob of 58,458 ticket began to go.

If Nicklaus' last far-flung chance for a 20th major championship was gone, they, taken as a group, weren't much interested in watching the last formalities of a Watson win, even a brilliantly courageous and competitive one.

And, in the further interests of sporting truth, it should be noted that when Watson's iron shot landed at the 18th, the roar was not very loud. In fact, thare was no roar. In fact, there wasn't even a cheer. A yawn would have sounded ear-splitting.

When Watson himself arrived, he received the perfunctory applause due a man who had just corralled his fifth major championship by being the only man in the field to negotiate four consecutive subpar rounds: 71-68-70-71. It was a proper champion's welcome, perhaps, but hardly a hero's greeting.

Twenty years ago, when Nicklaus was in the process of displacing Arnold Palmer as golf's master of masters, the "sophisticated" golf folk here resisted the notion, seeing in Nicklaus a fat and talented man of few personal charms. Now, the process is being repeated. Again, a great player is asserting himself with an entirely personal signature. And, again, he is being largely misunderstood and underappreciated.

The vast and unfair misconception about Tom Watson is that he is merely a dogged golf technician who, throughout his career, has unable to face up to competitive tasks in the premier events of his sport. He arrived here this week at age 31 with a record of one for 23 in major American golf championships. When Watson's game was perfectly honed, he won; when he had to show some guts, he choked. That was the label. And, sadly, it still may be.

Watson showed again today that he is almost the reverse of his public image: his weaknesses are technical as he wages a perpetual battle with a swing that is too fast and too unpredictable, while his strengths are those of a profoundly determined competitor.

Time and again today, Watson's golf swing got him in Dutch and his fierce competitive will saved him. Watson, who started the day one shot ahead of Nicklaus (and two up on Australian Greg Norman, who finished fourth 72-283), may have led this final round wire to wire. But it wasn't that easy.

At the second hole, Watson hit a trap, but blasted to eight feet and made the putt for birdie. At the wicked 435-yard fifth hole, he landed in the back trap, exploded miserably to 15 feet, then ground his guts over the putt and sank it to save par. That was simply the beginning, a mere sample.

On the PGA tour, there is an expression: "a Watson par." It means that you have visited sand, trees, water and briar patches, yet somehow you salvage your score, even if you have to knock the ball in the hole from the fairway.

On the final 10 holes this day, Watson showed that inexplicable gift, that ability to ignore every embarrassment inflicted on him by his game and keep grinding toward victory. At the ninth, Watson clanked an iron into the back fringe and faced the most vicious downhill putt on the whole course. "As soon as I tapped the ball," he said, "I reached in my back pocket and started putting on my glove again."

What Watson knew was that the ball would roll nearly 100 feet past the pin, off the green and back into the fairway. Just minutes before, that some fate unhinged Lon Hinkle, who was so humiliated by his horrid putt that his return chip shot landed on the slope and rolled back down to his feet. He took triple bogey. Watson, by contrast, chipped to eight feet, then rammed the bogey putt into the heart. "That was the key shot in the round," said Watson.

It may have been the key, but it, too, was just a prelude. The vital back nine was to be one long succession of "Watson pars."

At the 12th hole, Watson walked round and round a 10-foot putt for par, then sank the slick little devil ("a helluva putt, if I do say so").

At the 13th, leading by just one shot over Miller, who was playing far in front and had already reached six under par, Watson made his most potentially disastrous swing, slicing a four-iron shot into Rae's Creek -- an abysmal shot. On Saturday, Nicklaus had made bogey just that way. Not Watson today. He took his drop like a little man, wedged over the creek to six feet and made another of his six heart-stopping one-putts for the day.

The final test of Watson's combativeness came at the 17th hole. Miller was already in the clubhouse at 282, and Nicklaus had also reached six-under with birdies at the 15th (eight-foot putt) and 16th (a scintillating 30-footer uphill). For his part, Watson had also birdied the 15th with two putts from 45 feet to reach eight under par. "I told myself, 'Get three more pars, and you've won,'" said Watson.

However, he hadn't counted on him nemisis hole -- the 17th -- on which he scored bogey and double bogey on Friday and Saturday. Once again, he misclubbed himself. Once again, he knocked the ball in the front bunker, whence he had taken 6 the day before. But this redoubtable man from Kansas City had one more Watson par in his bag. "I could have played it like a dog . . . blasted to 15 feet short," he said, "but I hit an aggressive (potentially dangerous) blast to five feet."

And what did he do with that five-foot par putt, just the sort of evil, hard-to-read, bastard-length villain that had tormented players here all week?

"Well, I never considered the possibility that I wouldn't make it," said Watson.

From where do such certainties come?

"Inside," said Watson.

"The best part of Tom Watson's game is his mental toughness," said Nicklaus. "Above all, he doesn't like to lose. And the place that that's reflected is in putts between and 12 feet. He makes putts when he has to make them, and that's the mark of a competitor. Today, Tom was there when he had to be there."

"It's sweeter the second time," said Watson, who won here in '77 and finished second in '78 and '79. "It was more of a fight this time . . . a fight against myself . . . and I did it. I felt so nervous all day that I thought I would jump out of my skin, but I was determined not to hit two bad shots in a row, and I didn't . . .I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was special to beat Jack today. He's been the top player for 20 years, and it means more to go head to head with him and win."

For a moment, Watson' mask was down. He wasn't talking about his pursuit of the perfect, repeating swing. He was talking about himself. Was it possible, it was asked, that the real Watson was not a stylist intent on "swing arc" and "late release" and similar quasiscientific foolishness, but a raw battler who loved nothing than to attack a Bear and chews its leg off?

Watson grew quiet, thinking. He has never asked for praise, never milked a crowd. He plays the game for its own sake.

"Well," he said, "I might chew off a toe or two."