On Sept. 5, Chez Reavie stood in the 18th fairway at the TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., with a sand wedge in his hands and a 1-shot lead in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. The 29-year-old had fought his way to the top with four birdies on the inward nine holes. It was the first time he had a chance to win a tournament on his new right knee, the one that had troubled him since he first tore his ACL when he was a high school sophomore in Mesa, Ariz.
The knee. It was like a nagging friend he had comforted for years with ice, Aleve and the gentle hands of the physical therapists in the PGA Tour's fitness trailer. It had been strong enough to get him through an All-American career at Arizona State, a U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and a trip to the Masters in 2002, plus his first PGA Tour win at the 2008 RBC Canadian Open.
But now Reavie was completely healthy, fortified by ACL reconstruction surgery with a meniscus repair in June 2010. The son of a US Airways pilot had never known the heights at which his game could soar on a fully healthy body. His neck, back and ankles had become casualties as they helped compensate for his weak right knee.
In his golf swing without a right ACL, he couldn't turn into his right side. So he developed a lateral sway that limited his power, a subtler version of the move that Curtis Strange famously carried to 17 PGA Tour wins and two U.S. Opens.
"I didn't even realize I was doing it," Reavie said. "I was just trying to play. It was like that for so long. I was one of the shorter hitters on tour, but I didn't understand why because I worked out a lot and I was stronger than most of the guys out there.
"But I didn't realize that it was because I wasn't turning into my right side properly. So once I had the surgery and came back out this year, I was hitting the ball a lot further with a lot less effort."
Peter Kostis, the CBS golf analyst and Reavie's swing instructor since he turned pro in 2004, learned to work around the instability in his student's knee.
"All the players that I have ever worked with have some physical limitations," Kostis said. "It just so happens that Chez's limitations eventually hurt his ability to play. He used to be able to stabilize his right knee 60 percent of the time. Then it got to where he could only do it 20 percent of the time before he got his surgery."
For years Kostis had been trying to get Reavie to keep his right heel on the ground longer. That fix would get his club head out in front of him so his legs wouldn't outrace his body during the golf swing.
"I couldn't physically do the things that Peter wanted me to do in the swing because I didn't have a right ACL," said Reavie, who plays out of the Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. "I didn't realize that until going to physical therapy and going to a doctor and talking about how the ACL works. So when they were telling me that stuff, a lot of what Peter was wanting me to do kind of clicked."
Following his surgery on June 1, 2010, Reavie immediately began rehabbing the knee at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix with trainer Anna Hartman. She guided him through a 7-month program, including learning a new moving pattern for walking before he rejoined the PGA Tour in 2011 on a major medical exemption.
"The biggest challenge, and also the biggest success of Chez's rehab, was to learn how to link his kinetic chain in rotational movements," Hartman said. "Due to his knee injury, he had adapted his swinging mechanics to not cause pain. In doing so, he lost the kinetic linking into rotation that is so important in golf to safely create power and rotational speed.
"He had to completely learn how to generate power in his hips and unleash it in his swing again. Once he figured this out, and realized how important not just his leg strength and stability was, but truly his entire body, there was no stopping him in the gym or on the course."
Reavie now is hitting his irons about a club farther or roughly 10 yards greater in distance and says he is carrying his driver 10 to 15 yards farther in the air. His stats don't lie. This year he is ranked sixth on tour in total driving. His driving distance average is 293.9 yards, almost 16 yards more than the combined average of his previous three years on tour.
"The hardest part of coming off the knee surgery was that I was hitting the ball so much longer and I have had a hard time trusting the clubs that I have into greens," Reavie said. "The shots were totally different. I got to where I was comfortable with it at home. But then when I got back into competition, it was a little different. There is no way to go about it but to pay your dues and go play in the tournament and just get used to it."
He was still getting used to the new length as he stood over his 117-yard third shot on the par-5 18th at the TPC Boston. He was full of adrenaline. In March at the Transitions, Reavie was in contention late in the final round until two three-putts dropped him into a tie for 11th.
Much of the year was a struggle for Reavie as he dealt with his tenuous status on tour. He had started the year needing to make around $660,000 in 12 events to keep his card. A usually even-tempered lad, Reavie began to get down on himself.
"This year was definitely a lot more stressful because I let it be stressful," he said. "I was focusing so much on what I needed to do and how much money that I needed to make that I completely lost focus on how to do it.
"When I would see myself getting stressed out, I would tell myself that it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. The worst thing that was going to happen was that I was going to have to go to Q-school and get my card back that way."
Ultimately, Reavie would lose in Boston on the second playoff hole to Webb Simpson. In the end, in the most important moment of his comeback, he couldn't harness that newfound power. A year ago, Reavie admitted, that sand wedge would have been the right club for that distance.
"Everybody asked me about that wedge, looking at the negative," Reavie said. "But I had a chance to win with the tournament in my hands. I made one swing and hit it too far, but I played great all week to get to this point.
"A year ago, I was sitting on the couch with ice on my knee, not knowing what was going to happen."
At the beginning of the year, Reavie would have made everyone's list of least likely to make it to the Tour Championship. But here he is, ranked eighth in the playoff standings after an eighth-place finish last week at the BMW Championship.
Reavie last played the historic East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta at the 2001 U.S. Amateur, where he lost in the first round of match play. He arrived in Atlanta on Monday, got a haircut and planned on Tuesday to get his first view of the golf course in 10 years.
At 1:25 p.m. ET Thursday, he will start his first round alongside Nick Watney, twice a winner on tour this year at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the AT&T National. Reavie is one of only 12 players in the 30-man field without a win this year. To win the FedEx Cup playoffs, he must win the Tour Championship and hope that the top three players in the standings finish outside of the top three.
But after what he's been through over the past year, he's content to just play his game and not get too swept up in all the scenarios.
Simpson is the hottest player on the planet -- sorry to Thomas Bjorn fans -- but with such a small field, anything can happen.
Still there are other subplots. Brandt Snedeker, Keegan Bradley, Bill Haas and Zach Johnson will try to prove to Fred Couples this week that they should be the one to get that last spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team.
Vijay Singh, who has never missed a Presidents Cup since the biennial event began in 1994, is probably going to get picked by international team captain Greg Norman, but he shouldn't test the captain by playing poorly in Atlanta this week. John Senden could have a second great week in a row and force Norman to add him to his squad.
For Reavie, it already has been a great year regardless of what happens in the Tour Championship and the rest of the fall. He's headed back to the Masters for a third time, and he can make his own schedule for next year.
"I'm improving and trying to get better every week, and there really is no limit to what I think I can accomplish out here," he said. "It's nice waking up every morning healthy. Whereas before I didn't know what part of my body was going to be hurting."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.