John McLaren has been called many things over the course of his long and impressive caddy career. Obvious things like being a real professional or hard working and sincere. Others like fun-loving, friendly, and approachable. And more obscure things like wine connoisseur, restaurant guru and fashion icon.
But now his boss Paul Casey adds “brave” as McLaren begins an indefinite break from the game. He speaks out to raise awareness of others who may also be exposed to similar pressures.
THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT in Las Vegas last week was McLaren’s last tournament in the US in a while. He will keep Casey’s bag for the European Tour DP World Tour Championship in November in Dubai before ending up in Casey’s title defense at the Dubai Desert Classics early next year.
55-year-old McLaren, who has carried sticks for Luke Donald and Tony Johnstone among others for the past 31 years, came to the realization that the fear of regular Atlantic crossings was not healthy in this current pandemic-riddled world.
With his home in the UK and Casey in the US, jumping through the extra hoops for international travel during the pandemic has been exhausting. Tests to leave any country, tests to get back, sometimes quarantined and always with the ghost of a positive result over his head, McLaren noticed an undesirable change.
“The accumulation of the last 18 months of travel, the tests and the uncertainty have taken their toll, not only on me, but also on how I am at home with my family,” he told PGATOUR.com. “And if that affects my young children and my wife, whom I love very much, then the question arises of the sacrifice in relation to what needs to be won.
“Every weekend, I would practically sit there with my thumbs crossed, hoping that I would test negative to get home,” he continues. “And then when I got home I had to do more tests and isolate myself at home, etc. Test positive with my family and children, because then Paul’s life will not be so easy and easy because he is not sure whether his caddy gets it back. “
The pair faced this tough scenario before Casey attempted a third straight Valspar championship outside of Tampa, Florida earlier this year. Due to a contact tracing order, McLaren was unable to leave the UK until later than planned, which at best meant arriving late Wednesday on the eve of the tournament.
“I was about to leave and was basically told on a phone call to the government that I would be breaking government law if I left before the 10 days,” recalls McLaren. “So suddenly Paul just has to find a replacement for the day, and I struggle to get to my job by Wednesday. And then when you get there just try to ignore everything that happened and do your job as you normally would.
“The problem in the end is you start to see some subtle changes in your own personality that you don’t really know why they’re there. I knew that I felt different and that it was more about taking control of this situation than being a victim of everything. “
Caddy-player relationships are constantly breaking down in golf, but some last longer and are stronger than others. Sometimes a reason is given, sometimes not. And sometimes a reason that is wrong is used to mitigate the blow.
But there is no secrecy or hidden code here. And despite initial concerns about being viewed as weak, McLaren discussed his concerns with Casey, and the answer was clear. It was time to step back despite a very successful stretch of more than half a decade.
“This is a real moment when you have two guys who are really good friends and one of them says, ‘I have to take a break,’ and the other says, ‘OK, I totally support this,'” Casey tells PGATOUR .com. “In the current environment we’re in, it just doesn’t seem to be happening. And nobody seems to be talking about it either.
“This is not retirement,” he adds. “It’s a brave thing. This is Johnny going away for an indefinite hiatus, be it six months or whatever it is because he needs it. His health and wellbeing are the most important. We don’t know what the future is, but how can you watch your partner suffer and go through this and not realize they need to step back? He needs a break … and I accept that – well, growing up is easy. That’s all i do I’m just growing up. “
McLaren is grateful for his boss’s understanding.
“Paul was open enough for me to acknowledge this and give his blessings and say, ‘I would feel bad if I kept you against your will, if I care so much about you,'” says the caddy . “And that’s basically so unheard of in our sport because the sport is so cutthroat and selfish that if there is ever a perceived weakness, it is usually exposed and simply eliminated.
“We wanted to make it clear to people that it is possible to play sports and do it right and still be able to respect people’s feelings and decisions and not just have to fire them,” he continues. “Hopefully others will see in the future that it is possible.”
Despite uncertainty about the length of his sabbatical, McLaren has insisted that Casey find a new full-time caddy. “You don’t need me to shadow the new relationship,” he says. “I want him to play well with or without me.”
But Casey is already planning the duo for further events. Plus, they’ll stay friends. After all, they were together on bike tours through Europe and were part of weddings and important events together.
“We’ll be working together again, but will we have another long stay like this … who knows,” says Casey. “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together on the golf course, but I’m more proud that we’re better friends today than we were six years ago.”
McLaren, or “Johnny Long Socks” as he is affectionately known, will be missed. When the news of his impending hiatus broke, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan was part of a private video tribute sent to him.
“It’s a leap of faith that goes against the grain of what my dad once said to me when you were relevant, you shouldn’t get away from things,” says McLaren. “And I’ll leave this game as long as I’m relevant, but I know it’s the right choice for me right now.”
The fact is that McLaren will always be relevant. And this decision solidifies them.