Renato Naula’s Unique Road to the Big-Time
How does a kid from Ecuador make it to Augusta National? Lots of emails and a hitting bay made of blankets, for starters
By Jordan Perez
It all started at a driving range. That’s a familiar story, but in the case of Renato Naula, it was a pint-sized kid who discovered the game, not a family elder. The Ecuadorian sensation has been charting his own course since he was 7 years old, when he introduced his family to the game. This week, at the Latin America Amateur Championship, Naula is hoping to blaze another trail. Although he isn’t a rookie at the LAAC, he’s playing golf in the Dominican Republic for the first time as he hopes to make history for a small country with little golf tradition. Contending in Latin America’s premier amateur event is the next logical step for an 18-year-old whose journey in the game has been defined by restlessness.
Leading the charge
Within two years of happening upon the driving range in his hometown of Guayaquil, Naula developed a practice routine that turned into 21/2-hour sessions. When on vacation from school, he easily doubled that. In no time, the entire family had caught the bug, and golf became more than just a hobby.
“Generally, grandparents and dads bring the golf tradition,” says Naula’s mother, Johanna. “Here in our family, it was different, because the children started and now the father, grandfather and I all play.”
As a teen, Naula ascended through the ranks of South American junior golf, but he has made his biggest strides since the start of the pandemic, citing the lockdown as a period of time that “changed my life.”
After a 39th-place finish in his LAAC debut, in 2020, Naula was forced to improvise. With the help of his father, Enrique, he hung blankets in the backyard to serve as a makeshift hitting bay. Renato also worked tirelessly on strength training and on improving his short game.
Naula also began his pursuit of a boyhood dream: to play college golf in the United States. As of the 2019-20 NCAA school year, five golfers had played DI under the Ecuadorian flag. Naula was eager to add his name to the list. So he sifted through hundreds of schools and settled on a mere 80 to formally pitch, from 3,000 miles away. Minnesota came through with an offer for 2022. Naula was ecstatic, at least he was until he got a call saying his scholarship would not be available until the fall of 2023. Naula graduates from high school next month, and he was crestfallen at the thought of having to wait a year and a half to prove himself on a bigger stage. So he shut down his recruiting efforts, using that time to hone his game and bolster his golf resume.
The work in the backyard helped yield three wins and a pair of top-5s to close out 2020, in both professional and junior tournaments across Ecuador. Last year he ventured onto the international stage, including a start on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Tour and playing the Junior World Championship at Torrey Pines. Naula (below, center left) also led Ecuador to its first South American Junior Team Championship title.
Finding his way home
A major turning point came at the Junior World Championship in July 2021. Although he finished in the middle of the pack, he caught the eye of University of San Francisco coach Jack Kennedy. Several Zoom conversations ensued, and Naula was flattered his emails to Kennedy always received a prompt reply. He also was dazzled by the idea of having the opportunity to practice at Olympic Club. Naula signed to play with Dons last November and will join the team in the fall of 2022. “I think it’s the perfect step for me to become a pro after that,” Naula says. “No better place to play golf than California and the big city of San Francisco.”
But first, Teeth of the Dog beckons. Naula packed a shiny new Taylormade driver for the trip, and he’s confident his ball striking will be the difference on a tough, windblown course. All the balls he has smashed into those blankets is sure to pay off.