White needed a big performance to overhaul Japan's Ayumu Hirano and duly delivered with a spectacular display to earn a score of 97.75. The Flying Tomato threw his board in the air when his winning score flashed, setting off a delirious celebration.
James was second on 96.75 and Hirano third on 95.25.
Australian Scotty James, the 23-year-old world champion, took bronze.
Pre-Olympics favorites including two-time gold medalist Shaun White qualified for the men's snowboard halfpipe final in a high-scoring, high-flying contest on Tuesday.
White previously won gold in the 2006 and 2010 games, however, he missed out on a medal in Sochi. Finally someone in the crowd got it back down to him, but without the lens.
White opened with a frontside 1440 into a double 1080, followed by a double McTwist 1260 into a frontside 1260.
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That forced White to up the ante.
"I was hoping that first run would skate through and I could do a victory lap. I'm proud of the other riders for pushing me this whole time". White did the back-to-back 1440s in his second run - the first time he had ever done so in a competition - but didn't land the second one cleanly and lost speed.
"He ripped his face in half, more or less, and you can still see the scars", the Associated Press quoted White's coach, JJ Thomas, as saying.
"I get my favourite spot, dropping in last". He embraced Hirano and wrapped himself in the American flag.
While training for Pyeongchang in New Zealand in October, White crashed on the lip of the halfpipe and suffered serious facial injuries which required 62 stitches.
The 17-year-olds Chloe Kim and Red Gerard, and fellow American Jamie Anderson, have all won in Pyeongchang, where competitors have struggled with blustery winds.
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