- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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There he was, that unmistakable figure. Seated in the front row of a recent outbound flight from Orlando was none other than Tiger Woods, and one fellow passenger couldn't pass up the opportunity to bend his ear. So this gentleman sidled up to the No. 1-ranked golfer, tapped him on the shoulder and -- so as not to blow his cover, of course -- covertly whispered, "How's the knee?"
A valid query, except for one small problem: It wasn't Tiger Woods.
"It took me a second, but I realized what he was talking about and said, 'The knee is fine.' And then he kind of gave me a look that said, 'Don't worry, Tiger, your secret is safe with me,'" Al Smith later confided. "That kind of stuff happens all the time."
Not that Smith minds the indiscretion. As one of several Woods celebrity impersonators around the country, it's his job to be mistaken for the real McCoy. And yes, it can be a profitable endeavor.
From charity functions to scramble tournaments, Tiger doppelgangers specialize as suitable understudies for the 14-time major champion, while reaping the rewards of simply looking like him -- no other skills necessary.
"I've been blessed. I really don't have to do a whole lot," says Smith, 40, from Orlando. "I just put on a Nike polo and a hat and just really be myself. There's not too much, thank goodness, that I really have to do."
It's a familiar refrain for the would-be Woodses, most of whom were simply born into the role.
"My co-workers started to tell me, 'Hey, you kind of look like that golfer, Tiger Woods.' So they gave me a nickname: Tiger 2," says Herme Chua, 37, from Monrovia, Calif. "I saw a little resemblance there, but I didn't really think too much of it."
Not until the 2000 Battle at Bighorn, that is. As a spectator at the primetime event in which Woods was one of four competitors, Chua received numerous requests for photos and autographs, even granting an interview with the local ABC affiliate. He contacted an agency shortly thereafter and within a few weeks was booking gigs as his alter ego.
How profitable can these events be for the Tiger wannabes? Just check out Trivial Pursuit, which includes the following question in one of its most recent editions: "Who does Canh Oxelson charge as much as $3,000 to impersonate at corporate golf outings?" Or perhaps you've seen Chua winning the celebrity impersonator contest on "Live with Regis and Kelly" or competing as his lookalike on the "Family Feud"? In each instance, he donated a portion of the monetary prize to -- what else? -- the Tiger Woods Foundation.
Make no mistake, though; impersonating Woods is strictly a moonlighting venture. Smith, a high-end car salesman, gets hired for 5-6 gigs per year; Chua, a senior programmer analyst, works 10-20; and Oxelson, the dean of students at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, does up to two dozen. Of course, resembling TW doesn't exactly hurt their other employment opportunities.
"Even in my own career, people remember the guy who looks like Tiger Woods," says Oxelson, 37, from Studio City, Calif. "If you're looking for a job in this economy, you want them to remember you. It's not bad to look like Tiger. They'll remember you because of that."
Before going any further, now seems like a good time to set the record straight: There's a big difference between the words "impersonators" and "imposters." In 2001, it was one of the latter -- Anthony Lamar Taylor -- who was charged with identity theft against the golfer and sentenced to 200 years to life in prison as part of California's "Three strikes" law.
Those who play the man in public, however, note the strict limitations on how far they carry the role.
"As celebrity lookalikes, we actually have a few conventions every year and we have seminars on the legalities of what we can say and do, so there's a lot that goes into it," Smith says. "There's credibility and ethics involved. This is a job. It's a business. When I get hired, I'm hired for the illusion of that person. I keep it all in perspective; it's a job, I go and do it and when I'm done, I leave. But at no point do I carry it outside of my work."
There are two questions every Woods impersonator hears within the initial 30 seconds of greeting a fellow golf fan. First: Have you ever met him?
"We work out at the same gyms, we shop at the same grocery stores," says Smith, who doesn't live too far from Woods in central Florida. "Occasionally, I'll run into a store and he's just coming out, or vice versa. So every once in a while, we'll run into each other. It's very cordial. He's a super, super good guy. Very good guy."
Oxelson worked as a stand-in for Tiger during a commercial shoot some 10-12 years ago.
"The first time we saw each other, we were coming out of the makeup trailer dressed exactly alike," he says. "That was kind of strange. I don't think either one of us had ever seen someone who looked so much like us. He walked up and said, 'Hey, I'm Tiger Woods,' as if I didn't know. But he was a great guy, gave me some golf tips and was very kind about my swing."
All of which leads to question No. 2: Can you hit the ball like Tiger?
"When I go to the range, I hit the driver a lot, because that's the common thing that people want to see," says Chua, who plays to about an 18 handicap. "They're always like, 'Can you hit a 300-yard drive like Tiger?' Well, I'm still not quite there yet. I still need a lot of work."
Hmmm ... so those who look like the game's best player have a tough time replicating his swing? Maybe they have more in common with the rest of the PGA Tour membership than Woods after all.
These guys just happen to mirror the physical features of the world's most popular athlete ... and get paid for it, too. Rough life, huh? Then again, it's not all fairways, greens and oversized checks for the Woods-men.
"I'll be honest -- there are worse people to look like," Oxelson admits. "If you're going to look like someone, how about the best athlete on the planet? It's just that he's so popular that everyone comes up and wants to talk to you. They always say, 'Do you know who you look like?' I mean, I have my own life, my own things going on, too. But I don't want to make it sound like it's a bad thing. It's a wonderful thing."
Probably more wonderful for those who masquerade than Tiger himself, but the world's No. 1 golfer doesn't view the impersonators as anything short of beneficial.
"It is a little strange seeing people dressed like you, but they play a necessary role in some commercials and photo shoots," Woods says. "I appreciate the work they do in these situations, and the ones I have met are very nice."
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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