It’s safe to say life has changed considerably for Chiara Noja between her two appearances at the Dubai Moonlight Classic presented by EGA.
Her debut last year, when aged 14, came not long after relocating to the emirate, a move postponed and postponed again because of the pandemic. Even now, she’s still getting her head around the lifestyle, far removed from her native Germany.
“I would not take a single second of it back, to be honest,” Noja tells The National. “The fact I can call my family and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m at the beach right now’ - that’s absolutely insane to me.”
That could be used, too, to describe the ever-improving golf game, which registers at a fairly insane plus-7 handicap, and the fine performances this summer on the Ladies European Tour’s developmental circuit, the LET Access Series. At the Golf Flanders Trophy in Belgium, Noja finished runner-up, becoming the youngest player in the tour’s history to achieve that feat.
But perhaps the greatest difference in the then and now is that, when Noja tees it up for the first day’s play at Emirates Golf Club on Wednesday, she’ll be doing so as a professional.
That’s right: the Berlin-born teenager, still only 15, announced on Sunday that she had played her final round as an amateur. However, listen to Noja explain the decision, so succinctly and articulately that it belies her age, and it appears the obvious next step in a career she hopes promises much.
“Turning pro is a big step, but it’s one that I feel like I’m ready to take, especially here,” Noja says. “It’s probably the most emotionally connected event that I have.
“I've always made a point of competing against players a lot older, maybe a little better, more experienced than me. And I feel like that has always helped me develop as a player and as a person. It’s really shaped my golfing career.
“Especially over the last year, I’ve been playing on a professional tour, the LET Access Series. It’s given me so much more experience and insight to what the life is like and I’ve got a feel for that. I’m ready for that step and I want to take it right now.”
And anyway, Noja insists, it's not that much of a difference, to her at least.
“I still go to school, I’m still going to be practising hard and playing tournaments. The only thing is the title, I guess,” she says. “The commitments can change a little bit – it’s going to be a little more intense in that sense.
“But learning, coaching, travelling, they’re all parts of golf. That’s what makes up a golfing career. I’m really looking forward to getting to experience that aspect of life as well, because it is a really exciting step to take. It’s going to be a little different, but I’m up to it.”
The view is that balancing homework and her burgeoning career should not represent a problem, given Noja is part of a golf programme at her school. Handily, her studies are arranged around her golf.
“There’s a great support system in place,” she says, before confirming that mum and dad will ensure there won’t be “any slacking off”.
The immediate focus now, though, is this week’s 54-hole event on the Faldo Course. Last year, playing as she is this week on a sponsor’s invite, Noja struggled initially with her first taste of professional golf - pretty understandable - posting rounds of 77 and 86 before rebounding well on the Friday to finish with a 73.
To her credit, she looked upon the experience as all part of the learning process. “Accepting failure" was the key lesson gleaned.
"Because I sort of always thought that, ‘Oh everyone fails at some point, but it won’t happen to me’," Noja says. "I always thought I would get that opportunity and I would just be perfectly cool with it. But until you experience it you never know how you’re going to react.
“But this year it’s being a lot more myself and learning how I react to scenarios like that and just accepting failure and not being scared to fail. Because a lot of it is trying to avoid failure, which is never going to happen.
“You’re going to have bad misses, bad holes, bad days, but it’s just sucking it up and moving on."
For that, Noja describes last year's experience as "incredible", realising how fortunate she was, in fact, to go through that at a young age. Noja regrouped and went back to contesting local competitions before taking a sizeable step up to the Access Series.
Understandably, she is grateful to the LET for the support, and the insight it has provided, and repaid that faith in her displays.
Aside from the second place in Belgium, Noja finished tied-eighth in Sweden, even when she says she didn’t have her best golf. Overall, the tour’s been “really inspiring and awesome”.
“The one word that pops to mind is growth,” she says of the year between Moonlight Classics. “I was a very different person back then. Less experience, definitely less self-aware of who I was as an athlete, less confident in who I am.
“Over the last year I’ve spent a long time developing that mental health aspect of the game. Competing, getting more confidence, accepting that everyone’s going to fail at some point. It’s about getting back up more than you fail. So lots of growth. Because that’s such an important aspect of developing as an athlete.”
The plan is to showcase that progression this week. Noja will compete alongside the likes of former world No 1 and two-time major champion Ariya Jutanugarn, and four-time major winner Laura Davies.
And even better, this year’s event welcomes back fans, on Thursday and Friday - much to Noja’s delight.
“Probably the spectators,” she says when asked what she’s most excited about. “Because I’ve played in front of crowds at the LET Access but not like this before.
“The event’s been absolutely incredibly organised. Falcon [Associates], the LET, they’ve done a great job. And I’m more confident in who I am and you know what to look out for. I’ve played the course a lot more since then too. So I’m excited.”