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The biggest hero at the Phoenix Open works in the parking lot, not on the golf course

Jason Schechterle
Kohjiro Kinno/SI
Jason Schechterle, a retired Phoenix police officer, survived a car accident to become a scratch golfer and a member of the Thunderbirds, the charity organization that runs the Phoenix Open.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- I first met Jason Schechterle in the Desert Marlin at Scottsdale's Grayhawk Golf Club a few years back.

The Marlin, as regulars call it, is a riotously fun pro-am tournament featuring PGA Tour players who are Phoenix-area residents, industrial-strength wagering, adult beverages in mass quantities, professional needling, a closest-to-the-pin challenge (dubbed "The Dry Heave") contested while emcee Gary McCord heckles participants with a microphone (and frequent X-rated fusillades) and, oh yeah, 36 holes of golf.

Jason, 39, is a former Phoenix homicide detective, and the only known survivor of fourth-degree head-and-neck burns.

He's a medical marvel, really. Jason made his Marlin debut three years ago with pro partner Ted Purdy, a PGA Tour player. They played Phoenix-area junior golf together ages ago. Now, they're best friends.

Anyway, let's revisit Jason's first Marlin practice round. Purdy and Jason are playing with Tour vet Billy Mayfair and his amateur partner. It's the last hole and Team Mayfair is drilling Jason and Purdy six ways from Sunday. (See earlier reference, industrial-strength wagering.) Purdy and Jason decide to go all in. They double-down the bets.

Purdy snap-hooks his tee ball out of play.

Oops.

Mayfair's partner puts his drive in jail.

Sorry, pards.

Just like that, the money match comes down to a mismatch, Jason versus Mayfair.

Both players hit nice approach shots. Jason puts it 15 feet for birdie. Mayfair is looking at five feet. The tension is thick, while visions of an unpleasant ATM visit swirl in Jason's head.

Jason strokes the putt ... and pours it in!

He and Purdy fist-pump and swap high-fives, although Jason calls his "high-threes" since he lost a few digits in The Accident.

Mayfair barely settles over his five-footer when a voice interrupts.

"You're not going to make this on me, are you, Billy?" Jason asks in a pleading tone. "C'mon, man -- I caught on fire!"

Mayfair backs away from his ball and begins laughing uncontrollably, startled by Jason's unexpected elephant-in-the-room punch line. Purdy dabs at his eyes, he's giggling so hard. Finally, calm returns and Mayfair steps up to the short birdie putt.

He misses.

Jason flashes a huge smile. He doesn't have to open his wallet after all and better still, he now owns bragging rights that he has taken down a famous PGA Tour player, one-on-one. It feels awfully good to Jason. Especially considering that he's not really supposed to be alive.

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The adventures of Jason Schechterle, inspirational public speaker:

"Kids are brutally honest. I gave a talk at a school one time early on after my accident and asked if anyone had a question. A little boy raised his hand. He was probably first grade or kindergarten. He didn't have a question. All he said was, 'I think you're going to give me nightmares.'

"I realized immediately that I shouldn't have been there to speak. He was too young. After that, I focused on middle school and above, preferably high school and above. That boy made me think about who can handle my story and who can't."

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Jason opens the door to the small guest-house behind his lovely, shaded home in north-central Phoenix, and we're immediately greeted by the Olympic Torch. Yes, that Olympic Torch.

The Olympic flame traveled through Phoenix en route to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games. Jason was still in the early stages of recovery from The Accident 10 months earlier. The skin grafts that rescued some of his eyesight had only recently been removed; his extensive hand reconstruction had not yet begun.

Next to the Olympic Torch is a framed black-and-white photograph that shows a frail Jason passing the Olympic flame to then Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling. "You don't actually pass the torch," Jason explains, "you pass the flame." Good to know.

He isn't sure how or why he was selected to be one of some 11,000 torch-bearers - he thinks a local Coca-Cola rep suggested his name, since Coke was an Olympic sponsor. But Jason was probably a replacement. He got the call to carry the torch only three days before the relay through downtown Phoenix.

What's that? Donny and Marie can't make it? Quick, bring me Jason Schechterle!

"Something like that," Jason says with an easy laugh.

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