It’s the tiles that are so striking. They march away from you in an order that would bring delight to a sergeant major’s eye. All straight lines and right angles. And they extend not only along the floor but into a cupboard as well. Out of sight but not out of mind. Outside the front door, where you might expect to see paving stones or concrete slabs, are more tiles, all as equally spaced and regimented as those inside the house.
Then there are the pairs of shoes, nearly 20 of them lined up in formation on a shelf. The socks? Neatly rolled up and in a row in a drawer. Colour coordinated? Yes. The shirts? Folded very, very tidily. The cutlery? Forks snuggling up to one another? Knives shining and side by side?
He smiles at all this. “It’s the rhythm of my brain. It likes that sort of thing,” he explains.
You mean straight lines?
“Order, I guess,” he replied.
Here speaks John McLaren, a person who has obsessive compulsive disorder and doesn’t mind admitting it. It is part of what makes him, at 53, such a good caddie, one of the best in the world. In caddie years, he is at his peak and in his 28th year of carrying a bag, physically fit, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He worked for five years with Luke Donald during which Donald became world No. 1.
Now he is in his fifth year of working for Paul Casey, another Englishman resident of the US, two keen amateur cyclists good at their day jobs. “John doesn’t travel across the Atlantic to work for someone who doesn’t give 100 percent,” Casey said. “He won the money list on both sides of the Atlantic with Luke (in 2011).”
“I have always thought that the key to work relationships are mutual respect,” McLaren said. “We have that for each other. We have been very honest right from the beginning. I made him aware that my family came first and my job second and that I felt I had earned the right to not go to places if that was what I chose.
“He respected that, respected my views of my loved ones and I thoroughly respect his with his family and his commitment to the job. He is a true professional. He doesn’t feel I leave stones unturned. I am very obsessive about stuff I do.”
There is not much stuff to do at the moment. At least not to do with golf. No 7 a.m. alarms to make a tee time for a pro-am. No dashes from one event in the US to another. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while Casey has been at home in Arizona, McLaren has been in Surrey, England, to which he returned on Sunday 15 March, what should have been the concluding day of the Players.
The pair had thought about reuniting for the third event on the PGA Tour’s revised schedule, the Travelers Championship near Hartford, Connecticut, from 25-28 June. But they might not. The 14-day quarantine period McLaren would face after arrival in the US is a barrier.
“As soon as they lifted the quarantine I would be gone,” he said. “But that might not be for some time. Paul and I have talked about it.
If he is going to play two successive tournaments, say the WorkDay (9-12 July) and the Memorial the week after, then I might be prepared to fly over – but only if the 14-day quarantine rule has been lifted.”
Their transatlantic discussions, which are still somewhat inconclusive because there are so many imponderables, give you an idea of the strength of the relationship they have. It is based, as already noted, on mutual respect. Golf has a number of strong player-caddie partnerships: Rory McIlroy with Harry Diamond, a friend when the two were growing up in Northern Ireland; Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller, who have worked together since 2011; Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Finnis, who though they only teamed up in 2016 were boyhood friends and played amateur golf together.
The Casey-McLaren duo is another such, rather more than the normal player-caddie partnership. “What’s nice for me,” McLaren said, “is that we have had an open and frank conversation in which Paul is as anxious as I am that I do what I want to do and what is best for both of us. In some relationships that is not always the case. In some cases it might be, ‘If you’re not going to come (and caddie for me) you’re fired.’
“I think Paul respects my age. I am 10 years older than he is and he knows I have done well out of the game and don’t necessarily need him. He has also done very well with me around him. He hadn’t won in some time before I joined him. He has won twice with me. His financial position has improved just as mine has.”
Until travel arrangements become clearer McLaren’s days are filled with attending to his two children, Georgina, aged 7, and James, aged 6, with thrice-weekly cycle rides done at speed, and with being a good husband. Long periods away from golf are not unusual. He nearly always stays at home from October to December. It is being at home in mid-summer, at the height of the golf season, that is not normal.
His friends knew he had OCD. Once he played a game of squash with a friend and didn’t win a point. A few weeks later the two of them played again and this time McLaren didn’t lose a point. A good racket game player, he was so disappointed with his performance that he spent an hour each day on a squash court practising by himself, working the game out – without telling his opponent.
If his OCD is a blessing to McLaren now, there was a time when it was a burden. Thirty years ago he was a good pro, playing on tours in South Africa and Australia and surviving comfortably enough. His best finish was probably 20th.
The Paul Casey-John McLaren duo is another such, rather more than the normal player-caddie partnership.
But the OCD made him take his putter into his hotel room at night to practice. It’s what made him think and fret about his golf when he should have forgotten it for the day. Dinner with friends? He was there but not there, one of a group who were laughing and joking but only half hearing the banter.
And then he realised that golf is not a good game for someone who is as obsessive as he. Caddying, on the other hand, might be, even though he had a back that grumbled from time to time. Caddying wasn’t so self-dominated. He could do his job and park any unruly thoughts because he had done his best. He wasn’t alone as a caddie as he had been as a player. There was a degree of collective responsibility.
McLaren has a nice line in socks. He wears the colours of NFL teams and rather like the kilt that photographer Brian Morgan always wore on Sundays at tournaments, McLaren’s socks have become a talking point. They make him stand out. No wonder his nickname is “Johnny Long Socks,” often shortened to “Socks.”
McLaren shares many characteristics with Jim “Bones” Mackay, who caddied for Phil Mickelson for 25 years until moving into golf reporting on television. They are two tall, angular men who are very good at their jobs and accomplished talkers. It makes you think that McLaren probably could make a switch to doing on-course reporting as successfully as Mackay has.
For now, though, it is back to skipping with his daughter, to doing home schooling, to enjoying the sun-filled days in England. The alarm for a 7 a.m. tee-off time in a pro-am, comfortably McLaren’s least favourite moment, will come soon enough.
Top: John McLaren and Paul Casey