Paul Casey's caddie, John McLaren, to take mental health break
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McLaren says pandemic-related travel complications have taken a toll
Written by Ben Everill @BEverillGolfbet
Paul Casey and John McLaren's unique relationship
John McLaren has been called many things over his lengthy and impressive caddie career. Obvious things like true 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 is adding “courageous” as McLaren begins an indefinite mental health break from the game. He is speaking out to increase awareness for others who may also be facing similar pressures.
THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT in Las Vegas last week marked McLaren’s last tournament in the U.S. for some time. He will stay on Casey’s bag for the European Tour’s season ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November before finishing up with Casey’s title defense at the Dubai Desert Classic early next year.
McLaren, 55, who has carried sticks for Luke Donald and Tony Johnstone among others in the past 31 years, came to the realization that the anxiety of cross-Atlantic travel on a regular basis in this current pandemic-punctured world was not healthy.
With his home back in the UK, and Casey based in the U.S., jumping through the extra hoops for international travel during the pandemic has been exhausting. Testing to leave each country, testing to be allowed back, quarantining at times, and always with the specter of a positive result hanging over his head, McLaren noticed an unwelcome change.
“The accumulation of the last 18 months of travel, the testing, the uncertainty has taken its toll, not only on me, but how I am at home with my family,” he tells PGATOUR.com. “And once that starts to have an impact on my young children and my wife, whom I very much love, then the questions start to arise about the sacrifices relative to what needs to be gained.
“Each weekend I'd be sitting basically with my fingers crossed, hoping that I was going to test negative so that I could get home,” he continues. “And then the flip of that, obviously when I got home, I'd have to do more tests and isolating at home, et cetera, while planning to come back to work for Paul, thinking, well now I hope I don't test positive with my family and children because then that's then going to make Paul's life not as comfortable and easy because he's not certain his caddie is going to make it back.”
The pair faced that difficult scenario before Casey tried to claim a third successive Valspar Championship outside Tampa, Florida, earlier this year. Due to a contact-tracing order, McLaren was unable to leave the UK until later than he’d planned, which meant – at best – a late Wednesday arrival on tournament eve.
“I was going to leave and basically got told by a government phone call that I would be in offense of government law if I left before the 10 days,” McLaren recalls. “So suddenly we've got Paul having to find a fill-in just for the day, me scrambling to get to my job by Wednesday. And then once you get there trying to just ignore everything that's happened and do your job as normal.
“The issue in the end is you start to recognize some minor changes in your own personality that you aren’t fully aware of why they're there. I knew I felt different and it was more about taking command of that situation rather than being a victim of it all.”
Caddie and player relationships break up all the time in golf, but some last longer and are stronger than others. Sometimes a reason is given, sometimes not. And sometimes a reason that’s not true is used to soften the blow.
But there is no secrecy or hidden code here. And despite some initial worry of being seen as weak, McLaren discussed his concerns with Casey and the answer was clear. It was time to step back despite a very successful stretch spanning over half a decade.
“This is a genuine moment where you've got two guys who are really good friends and one guy going, ‘I need to take a break,’ and the other guy going, ‘OK, I fully support that,’” Casey tells PGATOUR.com. “In this current environment we're in, it just doesn't seem to happen. And nobody seems to speak about it, either.
“This isn't retirement,” he adds. “This is a brave thing to do. This is Johnny stepping away for an indefinite break, be it six months or whatever it's going to be, because he needs it. His health and well-being is what’s most important. We don't know what the future is, but how could you watch your mate suffer and go through that and not recognize he needs to step away? He needs to have a break… and me accepting that – well it's just being grown up. That's all I'm doing. I'm just being grown up.”
McLaren is grateful for his boss’s understanding.
“Paul has been open enough with me to acknowledge it and give his blessing and say, ‘I would feel bad to keep you against your will when I care so much about you,’” the caddie says. “And that basically is such an unheard of thing in our sport because sport is so cutthroat and selfish that if there's any ever any perceived weakness, normally it's exposed and just gotten rid of.
“We wanted it to come to people's attention that it is possible to be able to do sport and do it properly and still be able to respect people's feelings and their decisions and not have to just fire them,” he continues. “Hopefully in the future others will see it’s possible.”
Despite the uncertainty of the length of his sabbatical, McLaren has insisted Casey needs to find himself a new fulltime caddie. “They don’t need me shadowing over the new relationship,” he says. “I want him to play well with or without me.”
But Casey is already penciling in the duo for events further down the line. Plus they’ll remain friends. After all, they’ve been on cycling trips across Europe together, and been part of weddings and significant events together.
“We will work together again, but will we do another long stint like this… who knows,” Casey says. “I'm proud of the things we've achieved on the golf course together, but I'm prouder of the fact that we are better mates now than we were six years ago.”
McLaren, or “Johnny Long Socks” as he is affectionately known, will be missed. In fact when word got out of his impending break, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan was part of a private video tribute sent his way.
“It’s a leap of faith that goes slightly against the grain of what my father said to me once, which was while you were relevant, you shouldn't walk away from things,” McLaren says. “And I'm going to walk away from this game while I'm relevant, but I know it’s the right choice for me right now.”
The fact is McLaren will always be relevant. And this decision solidifies it.