Tom Watson today won the British Open a fourth time because, suddenly, the freckled laddie who once couldn't win for losing now can't lose for winning.

On a routine 70 that ended with an expletive-deleted putt, the gods of golf made recompense for past sufferings by giving him a victory that belonged to a poor fellow we may never hear from again.

The South African anonymity, Nick Price, led by three strokes after successive birdies at the ninth, 10th and 11th holes. But he lost four shots to par coming in on Troon Golf Club's carnivorous last six holes to hand the championship to Watson, who in 1974 and 1975 bumbled away U.S. Open championships that were his for the simple taking.

"I have great empathy for Nick Price," said Watson, who last month won the U.S. Open with birdies at the last two holes and now is only the fifth man ever to achieve the open-open double in the same year.

"He lost the tournament. He gave the tournament to me. It's a great feeling to win. But it's better to win."

Watson won, or accepted, on rounds of 69, 71, 74 and 70 for a four-under-par 284 over Troon's 7,067 yards. Price's 73 today left him one shot behind Watson, tied with England's Peter Oosterhuis, who had 70.

Bobby Clampett, who still led after his 78 Saturday, completed his downfall with a 77 today that left him at 288, the same as Jack Nicklaus, who scored 69 today.

Only Harry Vardon, who won his sixth British Open in 1914, and five-time winners J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Peter Thomson have won this tournament more times than Watson.

At 32, Watson now has won seven major championships, including two Masters and one U.S. Open. At the same age, in case you're keeping score of the race for immortality, Nicklaus had won 13 of his 19 majors (including two U.S. Amateurs).

Arnold Palmer's bogey at the 18th may have marked his last appearance in the British Open. His 74 today was good for a tie for 27th. Only the top 25 automatically qualify for the next go-around. Palmer says he won't play if he must qualify.

Watson, undefeated in Scotland, the site of all his Open triumphs, made a dramatic, if workmanlike, eagle at the 11th hole to pull into a tie with Price, who hadn't yet begun his birdie streak.

After a drive of 278 yards into an 11th fairway maybe 30 yards wide, Watson sent a three-iron shot 203 yards to a yard short of the cup.

"My tee-to-green play won the championship for me," said Watson, who on Saturday put his drive on the first green (a 362-yard hole) and hit par-5s with second shots from a six-iron and a three-iron.

"I played better here than I did in the U.S. Open, but I putted better there."

Watson sank the three-footer for his eagle, and then played the next six holes one over par. Hardly heroic. And he came to the 18th green two shots behind Price, the 86th-leading money winner in Europe this year.

"I knew I needed a birdie," Watson said of his 18-footer at the last hole. Uncharacteristically of the game's most aggressive putter, Watson left the putt a turn or two short. And what did he think then?

"Expletive deleted," Watson said later, laughing. "I didn't expect to be the champion, leaving the putt short at 18. I thought, 'That's the way to finish the tournament to finish second.' "

As Watson came off the green, his wife Linda told him Price made a double bogey at the 15th.

Through no particular good work of his own, Watson was tied for the lead. Now it was up to Price, who had to play the last three holes in par to force a Monday playoff. By now, Price was a twitching mass of nerve endings receiving sensations they'd never known before.

Describing his play at the 15th, where he drove into the left rough, blooped a four-iron into a fairway bunker and hit the lip of the bunker coming out, Price said, "I had hit a bad tee shot at the 13th, so at the 15th I was a bit negative. The wind was blowing a different direction. I was apprehensive."

This is not the frame of mind in which to face the last four holes of a back nine that all week made strong men seem cowardly incompetents.

It is what you expect, though, from a 25-year-old ex-cricketeer whose biggest victory was the 1980 Swiss Open and who, this spring, was so desperate he spent two months with a swing doctor in Florida.

Somehow, Price scraped out a par at the long 16th and came to the 17th, a 223-yard par-3, still needing only pars to tie. He had in mind a one-iron tee shot--until he saw his playing partner, Clampett, reach the green with a two-iron. He switched to a two-iron, too. Such indecisive reaching for straws is inevitably doomed, and Price's ball landed short of the green, 60 feet from the hole.

His pitch rolled six feet past, and he missed the putt for par.

Now the tournament was Watson's, unless Price could birdie the 425-yard 18th. After jerking his tee shot far left, Price put a four-iron second shot 30 feet from the hole. His putt to tie Watson stopped short.

"I thought halfway there that it had a chance," said Price, who plans to take a shot at the U.S. tour this fall. "But it died across the hole."

On a day when he said his game plan was to make pars and avoid foolish mistakes, Price made a double-bogey, five bogeys, and six birdies. And he said he was "disappointed that I couldn't hold a three-shot lead with six holes to play. I know I'll dream about it and have nightmares about it."

Watson has been there. "I learned from it," he said of his failures at Winged Foot in 1974 and Medinah in 1975. "I cried. There might be some crying going on today with these fellows. But it made me a tougher player, because I didn't want to feel like that again."