Tiger shows guts of old at Muirfield

A man needs the stomach for grinding out an under-par score on a grim afternoon like this one by the Firth of Forth.

The sun may have been shining, but Muirfield was a difficult battleground Thursday as the world’s finest golfers complained of unfairness at this Open Championship and the R&A essentially told the whiners to play better.

It takes something special — not just talent, but guts — to find a way to shoot a red number when the wind whips, rock-hard fairways send decent tee shots into the hay and frighteningly fast greens make a simple two-putt a grand achievement.

Back in the day, what made Tiger Woods the greatest player of his generation — and perhaps any — wasn’t just that he was a better golfer, but that he was the ultimate grinder.

It’s a quality that won him many prizes. He came from behind in all his US Amateurs, including majors he probably shouldn’t have won. Most famously his last one was the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.

But for a while now, I’ve been wondering whether he still had the stomach for it in the way he once did. It’s true that Woods has won again since his world was turned upside down in 2009 — including four times this year — but those were his weeks. He played well and he won, much like every other winner does.

What separated him for the first 13 years of his professional career was that he could win with his B or even C games because of his appetite for the grind. I don’t know if he’ll ever be that player again — it takes everything out of a man — but I can say with certainty that he still has it in him.

And I know that because I saw it on this day. It was just like old times.

Woods shot a 2-under-par round of 69 that was as good as any he has played at a major since that win in San Diego.

“Tiger played phenomenally well,” playing partner Graeme McDowell said. “Really grinded it out well. Did what he does best.”

Not that anyone would have thought Woods would be getting any plaudits after his first tee shot.

He has a history of stage fright on the first tee at majors and was betrayed by his nerves again on Thursday, hitting a wounded duck of a hook into what is possibly the only tree at Muirfield. His ball bounced back into waist-high fescue so thick he needed to take a penalty drop just to be able to get a club on his ball.

But Woods set the tone for his day by somehow escaping that nightmare with only a bogey.

He certainly made other mistakes — a horrible chip and putting off a green led to other bogeys — but Woods had 10 one-putts that made him one of only four players to shoot in the 60s in the afternoon wave, when difficult conditions grew far more treacherous.

“It was more of a grind than one of those Pro-Am, happy-go-lucky, you know, talking-to-your-playing-partner-all-day (rounds),” Woods later joked. “There wasn’t a lot of talking out there today because we’re trying to grind it out on that golf course, and it’s one of those courses where it just got so difficult.”

But as well as he played on Thursday, Woods — who finished only three shots behind Zach Johnson’s lead — knows that if he’s to end his major-less drought, there’s a long way to go.

And there’s history to overcome.

Woods used to be the best finisher in sports. But that hasn’t been true on golf’s biggest stages for more than five years, beginning when he was stunned by unknown Korean Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Good starts haven’t been his problem. The issues have come at the other end. Woods has now broken par in the opening round of five of his past six majors. In the previous five, however, he has had only four below-par rounds after Thursday.

Last year, from winning positions, he faded badly on the weekend at the US Open as well as at Royal Lytham & St. Annes and at the PGA Championship in Kiawah Island.

If he’s going to finally win No. 15, he has to know it’s not going to come easily.

It’ll be a grind.