Going toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods was never part of the plan.

When Woods was sending the golf world into a tailspin with his epic 1997 Masters triumph at Augusta National, Brad Kennedy was greeting members in the pro shop at Coolangatta-Tweed Heads Golf Club on the Gold Coast.

When Woods was in the midst of one of the greatest stretches of major championship golf at the turn of the century Kennedy was playing pro-ams on sand scrapes in Western Australia and in outback mining towns in Queensland.

Any aspiring professional golfer is lying if they say they haven’t envisioned major championship glory lining up a six-footer at their home club on a Sunday afternoon but Brad Kennedy never believed it.

Never truly believed in himself.

Now, at 46 years of age, Kennedy will make his first appearance on American soil at the ZOZO Championship at Sherwood Country Club in California where Woods is the defending champion and has hosted – and won five times – the Hero World Challenge.

Set to earn a place at next February’s WGC-Mexico Championship by virtue of his current position atop the ISPS HANDA PGA Tour of Australasia Order of Merit, Kennedy is once again mixing with the world elite in the year that was intended to be his last on tour.

He has played just two majors – the 2011 and 2012 Open Championships – and was tied for 51st at the WGC-HSBC Champions in 2012 but prior to lockdown the Queenslander was in the midst of the best form of his 20-plus year career.

Dating back to the Japan Golf Tour’s Bridgestone Open just over a year ago, Kennedy has accrued two top-10s, five top-5s and a last-start victory at the New Zealand Open in his past 12 starts. If not for a three-putt on the 72nd hole he would have also won the Coca-Cola Queensland PGA Championship at Toowoomba.

Ranked a career-high of 101st in the world after his second NZ Open triumph, Kennedy chose not to pick up a club for six months, seeing no value in practise used purely as a way to kill time.

He then received word that he might earn a spot in this week’s co-sanctioned event as one of the top eight Japan Golf Tour members not otherwise exempt on the Official World Golf Rankings, prompting a six-week boot camp of putting and short game to get battle-ready.

It was an opportunity too good to refuse and one Kennedy now believes he is positioned to capitalise on.

“I’ve grown a lot the past seven years,” said Kennedy, who has won three times in Japan since 2012.

“Early on in my career I never believed in myself enough to feel that I was good enough to play at the highest level.

“The last six years I’ve felt that change a little bit in personality and performance just through hard work and discipline.

“I’m not worried about the consequences anymore. Early in my career I was always fearful of making a mistake so I never really pushed as hard as maybe I could have. But I didn’t also have the tools to back that up.

“Now I play without consequence and I’ve developed those tools that I can hit those shots, I can play those courses, I can shoot those scores.”

A member of the Australian Schoolboys team in 1992, Kennedy completed a three-year PGA Traineeship under Geoff Parslow at ‘Cooly-Tweed’ and spent a year working in the pro shop.

He joined the PGA Tour of Australasia full-time from 1998 and spent the next decade worrying primarily that each year on tour might be his last.

“Coming from a Trainee background and being a club pro for a year, I never took playing for granted,” explained Kennedy, who has never been outside the top 260 in the world since finishing second at the Canon Open in 2011.

“I never gave up the dream of trying to compete at the highest level but I never took anything for granted as well.

“It was always the case that one bad year could be the end. I was always grateful for the opportunities that I had and I never wanted to give that up.”

The irony is that 2020 was indeed meant to be Kennedy’s last.

He and performance coach Dave Alred – who Kennedy credits for much of his success the past seven years – set out a plan to play 50 events across 2019-2020, plans that became redundant with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was frustrating to be honest,” said Kennedy of his schedule being shut down following his win in New Zealand.

“I’d said to Dave two years ago that the end of 2020 was the end so he set myself a target of 50 events until the end of my career.

“This year I had 25 and played the first four and I was really gearing up for a massive year, giving every tournament my biggest possible attention and not to waste an event.

“After NZ I was ready for more and wanting to take on more and once all that hit it became very frustrating.

“I did struggle with letting go. The hardest thing with COVID was not having control. As professionals you do have a certain amount of control, whether it be in your schedule, in your training, in your practise. You’re in control of what you do, where you go, how you travel. That was all just taken away and we didn’t have anything.

“I was struggling mentally not having anything to prove or anything to work towards. I had to let that go and once I did that it was quite easy to let the game go and spend quality time at home with the family.”

Kennedy’s intention as it stands is to play in Japan again next year and possibly again in 2022 but his first order of business is to prove to himself once and for all that he belongs among golf’s very elite.

“You are where you are at any one time and the idea is to keep developing, keep improving,” Kennedy said.

“You just never know where that next opportunity’s coming from. That’s why I took this one.

“It’s a great opportunity for me and I’m going to stand up there and have a real solid go.

“I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and walk away with no regrets.”