A 16-year-old golf sensation who lives and studies in Dubai has had a whirlwind first year on the professional circuit.
German-born Chiara Noja is the youngest European golfer ever to win a professional tour event.
This year she needs to carve out time to study for the crucial GCSE examinations while playing against the best in the world.
Confident and self-assured, the teenager stunned the golfing world when she won her first Ladies European Tour title, the Aramco Team Series in Jeddah last November, barely a year after she turned pro.
Chiara spoke to The National about handling pressure on the circuit and completing maths homework on the plane ride home to Dubai after her big win in 2022.
“I was raised in an environment where I was always taught to be uncomfortable and almost to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That really helps with mental toughness,” she said during a break from practice at Dubai’s Jumeirah Golf Estates.
When she won in her age category as a child, her father Tom Noja placed her in higher age slot.
“So I always got to compete against better players and I was always challenged which was really good for me,” she said.
Hitting the books and teeing off
Chiara swung her first club at age three when her parents took her along to play golf at a weekend in Berlin.
The family moved to the UK when she was seven and relocated to Dubai three years ago.
Her parents selected the Gems FirstPoint School in Dubai that allows her to study while continuing to train during the week and offers online education when she plays international events.
Keen on getting good grades, Chiara sets aside time for schoolwork in the morning or evening during tournaments.
“I play my rounds and then I get my books out and study,” said the Grade 11 pupil.
“I study on the flight back home. It’s part of the journey for me, that’s normal.
“Of course, it’s difficult but I think I’m doing a good job so far and I’m going to keep trying to do that.”
She has been in the media spotlight way before she turned professional at the age of 15.
She placed second in the UK in the Ladies County Championship at age 12, and went on to win the Scottish Girls' under-12 Open Championship.
At age 13, she topped the European rankings in the under-14 age group.
A strong support system built by her parents and friends in Dubai makes her feel like a ‘regular child'.
“I really have had the opportunity to blossom into being myself,” she said.
“I also get to meet successful players who come here to play and I can learn from them.
“Coming to Dubai and the school has been a really good decision for me.
“I have made close friends who know I can’t always pick up the phone because I’m at practice or in tournaments.
“They have been so supportive and cheer for me every step of the way.
“Those are really things you cannot take for granted and I appreciate this every single day.”
On being fearless
Her father has been her coach from the time she began playing. Seeing him react with tears at her big win in Jeddah was an emotional moment.
“I didn’t cry, I think I was kind of shocked when I won,” she said.
“All day I was tensed, my concentration was so high and I pushed myself to being fearless.
“But I know my dad is emotional. He has a tough exterior but inside he cares more than anybody else.
“He puts his heart and soul into everything we do so there is not a moment where I’m not grateful for everything he does.
“Seeing him cry was rewarding because it felt like I made him proud which was a beautiful feeling.”
Mr Noja, a former professional footballer in Germany, said pitting her against experienced golfers was instrumental in growing her game.
“I know how important it is to be prepared for life and life is not straightforward,” he said.
“For me, it was important that Chiara has the opportunity to find the balance between winning and failing.
“It’s not just about golf, it’s about life. You fail, you make a mistake, learn from it and get better.”
Learning to ‘tap-in’
Meeting her idols such as New Zealand golfing superstar Lydia Ko, who won top honours as a teenager, has been inspiring for Chiara.
“Lydia Ko has been one of my greatest role models, she gave me some tips and it was really interesting to have a conversation with a player of that calibre," she said.
“In a letter to her teenage self, she has spoken about how when you are young, every putt will look like a tap-in, that everything seems possible but how everything can also change.”
“I have got ‘tap-in’ engraved on my putter. Every time I look at it I get a little more motivated. It’s just this belief that I can.”
Mature beyond her years, she has practical advice for younger children.
“I tell them — don’t be afraid to fail — that’s the lesson I have had to learn. There is no easy route, no shortcut, you have got to practice," she said.
“Don’t let the mind wander and do strange things out on the golf course.
“Think of what you are trying to achieve, think of your goals and commit to those and do whatever you can to make it possible.”
Best in the world
Chiara's dream is to be the world number one but she is practical enough to realise others share the same burning ambition.
Staying mentally strong, working hard on every aspect of her game and trying “to get as close to perfection” are among her goals.
“My main goal is making sure my mindset is good, making sure I’m fearless and committed,” Chiara said.
“I’m trying to do the best I can every single day I go out there.
“And I’m trying to win. Whether I do or not is a different story because golf is really, really dang tough.
“My goal is to be number one in the world but I guess that’s everyone’s dream.
“So, the question is can I do it and play the golf I need to.”