To Tom Watson, "It looked like a playoff the whole day." And when the most open British Open in memory ended, Watson had picked off seven challengers--shot by shot--and won his fifth championship.

A tournament dotted with the beautiful, the bad and the bizarre was not officially over until Watson tapped in on the 72nd at Royal Birkdale for a nine-under-par 275 that beat Hale Irwin and Andy Bean by a shot, Graham Marsh by two and Lee Trevino by three.

But the shots that thrilled Watson most were a four-iron into the wind on the 11th hole, a 20-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole that gave him the outright lead for good and the two-iron second shot two holes later that all but clinched the title.

"That's what competition's all about," Watson said after his one-under 70 was good enough to avoid a playoff after eight very fine or very hot pros had a share of the lead at one time or other. As Watson was quick to emphasize, he "took" this tournament; last year at Troon he was given it by Nick Price and Bobby Clampett.

For Watson, the meaningful math is: his fifth British Open in nine years, each on a different course, and his first on an English links. Only Harry Vardon has won this tournament more times (six) and only Peter Thomson, James Braid and J.H. Taylor have won as many. Also, it is his eighth major championship, including two Masters and a U.S. Open. Greedy as he is about such matters, Watson thought it should have his ninth major.

"I made up for the last nine at Oakmont," he said, a reference to losing a three-shot lead and the U.S. Open to Larry Nelson a month ago near Pittsburgh. "I put it on the players this time."

He surely did.

The always-gray, often-blustery final round got its first jolt when the obscure Marsh put a seven-under 277 on the board before most of the players nearly everyone thought would win had finished the front nine. He did that with a 64 that tied the course record Craig Stadler set the first day.

Seven under and the wind gusting. Hmmm. Could this be the first stolen British Open, the first in which nearly nobody saw any of the winner's last-round shots? The Australian said he birdied the fifth, sixth, 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 17th holes and we'll have to take his word for it.

Of the 26,666 fans climbing about the dunes-laden course, 26,664 seemed to be trying to will Briton Nick Faldo to victory. He one-putted the first five holes and caught Watson at one point. So dry was the course and so intent were they on seeing his every stroke, Faldo's fanatics stampeded every hole.

They crossed fairways with abandon when Faldo and playing partner Lee Trevino walked by, giving the impression someone was offering free lager on the other side. The lure was hope, that Faldo would become the first native since Tony Jacklin in 1969 to win the world's oldest tournament.

But Faldo faded, with bogeys on the sixth, 12th, 14th and 16th. At the par-3 12th, he hit an ugly hook hook that bounced high off a hill 80 feet from the cup and off the hand of Gary Owens of suburban Southport.

Owens said he was protecting his face, but the ball popped halfway down the hill and halfway to the hole. "Best we could do with it, Nick," a fan shouted when Faldo arrived.

The best Faldo could do with that severe downhill lie in thick rough was pitch to nine feet. His par putt never touched the hole. Four holes later, his fight was finished.

Stadler fell more quickly than expected. The leader after the first two rounds trailed Watson by just a shot on the first tee; he was off the leader board after seven holes.

After sailing his tee shot wide again on the seventh hole, Stadler flipped the club to his caddie and said: "Can't bogey every hole, can I?" Back-to-back birdies followed that fifth bogey, but with a wind that has frustrated him the last two days beginning to swirl, Stadler no longer was a factor. Trevino was, and he wasn't.

He seemed to shoot himself out of the tournament the first 12 holes; he seemed to shoot himself back in with an eagle at the 13th. Then Bean and Irwin eliminated him after birdies at 17.

Playing together, Irwin and Bean each shot four-under 67s. They even birdied four of the same holes (three, seven, 13 and 17). Bean hit 33 of 36 fairways during his charge; Irwin saved par at least four times today with putts of five feet or more. A whiff of the simplest tap-in at the 14th hole Saturday cost him a chance at a playoff.

"I learned my lesson," he said. "You can't take anything for granted. I was very careful from three inches today."

Watson was very careful off the first tee today. That has been the scene of much chagrin for him over the years. He took a triple-bogey 7 there in the third round of the '76 British Open and a bogey and double bogey this year.

Today, he struck a one-iron to the middle of the fairway and a four-iron 20 feet from the pin for a two-putt nerve-shooting par. He bogeyed No. 4, with a three-putt from 70 feet, and No. 9, after pushing a seven-iron second shot.

A month ago, Watson crashed on the back nine in the U.S. Open; he was at his tight-jawed, flag-hovering best the final nine holes today.

Eight under on the 16th tee, Watson knew he needed one more birdie to break the tie with Irwin and Bean, already stewing in the clubhouse; he knew there were two holes left that he could birdie. So he birdied the one immediately available.

Then he hooked a drive into the hillside at 17. Fortunately for him, there was a way back to the fairway. A pitch to the green saved par, but made a 4 on the extremely difficult 18th necessary. He stung a drive well; he nailed that two-iron better.

Immediately, his route to the green was blocked by fans.

"I thought I was in the middle of a rugby scrum," he said later.

His hand on the shoulder of a bobby, Watson got through. And when he holed out Ricky Banks might have been happier than either Watson or his wife Linda.

Watson winning his fifth British Open meant that Banks won his fifth enormous British Open bet. Banks once lost a hair-dressing business gambling, but has won trips to Majorca and Isreal by betting Watson.

For Watson, it's on to the Riviera Country Club next month and the PGA, the one pro major he has failed to win. He has won twice on that course and said victory here "could be the springboard. I hope."

Watson bogeyed his acceptance speech. While thanking the groundskeepers, Watson suddenly let go of the trophy and it went clanging to earth. Red-faced Watson retrieved it and said: "Didn't dent it too much."

Twenty minutes later, the leader board carried this message: "Well done, Tom. See you at St. Andrews."