Chiara Noja ahead of the Dubai Moonlight Classic
Chiara Noja ahead of the Dubai Moonlight Classic Image Credit: Supplied

Tiger Woods, 20 years old. Rory McIlroy, 18 years old. Dubai’s Chiara Noja, 15 years old - That’s the age each of those players turned professional.

It’s almost unbelievable that Noja, who moved over to Dubai last year, has made the decision to switch to the professional ranks so early in her career, but she’s not your average golfer.

Before turning professional ahead of her second outing at the Dubai Moonlight Classic presented by EGA, the youngster was playing off a remarkable handicap of +7. To put that into perspective, Woods, who is thought of by many as the greatest to play the game, had a handicap of +8 before making the switch in 1996.

Noja admits the disruption to the amateur calendar caused by the pandemic accelerated the decision, but fine displays on the Ladies European Tour Access Series (LETAS), including becoming the youngest runner-up in the tour’s history earlier this year, confirmed she was ready to mix it with the best.

“The second place finish in Belgium really gave me a boost, it was the last kick I needed to turn professional,” said Noja.

“I played in France the week before and I was a little unsure of myself, but I performed, not my best, but still got the results, which was really good for my mental health and confidence in general.

“In Belgium, I sort of discovered myself as player a little bit more, going into that final round leading a tournament. That was a really cool experience and made me realise that I was really looking forward to turning professional. I saw that as something to strive towards sooner rather than later.”

Dubai Moonlight Classic
The Dubai Moonlight Classic is the only night tournament in world golf Image Credit: Supplied

With her first professional outing right here in Dubai, Noja is keen to put a few wrongs right after a difficult LET debut at last year’s Moonlight Classic.

Consumed by the pressure on her shoulders in front of a global TV audience, the then 14-year-old nearly didn’t finish the tournament after letting a disappointing second round 86 get to her. A three-hour conversation with her coach was the motivation she needed to get back out and finish the job, which she did, with an impressive final round 73 over the Faldo course.

So what has Noja learned ahead of this year’s edition of the only night tournament in world golf?

“There’s been a lot of mental growth as well as development in my game,” she says.

“We’ve definitely done a great job in our preparation this year by trying to condense everything. Last year I had media requests throughout the week whereas this year we’re just doing it all in one go so I can focus on my golf. We’ve made some really good progress with keeping everything in place and securing my time to focus on the tournament rather than getting carried away and focusing on things that I shouldn’t need to focus on.

“When you go out there it’s just you and the golf club trying to get the ball in the hole, so you’ve got be in tune with yourself. I’ve done a lot of growing and developing. I’m looking forward to getting started with a better mind-set and a better clarity on who I am as an athlete. I’m going to be focusing on every single shot that comes my way.”

The future looks bright for this amazing talent, who is frequent visitor to Jumeirah Golf Estates, but she won’t be playing week in, week out, with the likes of double Solheim Cup winning captain Catriona Matthew and four-time Major champion Laura Davies just yet.

“I’m too young to compete at LET Qualifying School!” she chuckles.

“Invites to Ladies European Tour events and LETAS tournaments are going to be the goal next year. It’s a really exciting time where I’ll get lots of experience in playing in these bigger events, and hopefully I can get my first professional win. I’ve got a lovely list of tournaments on the schedule so we’ll see what my next steps are after competing in those.”

For now, Noja’s mind, which belies her years, is fully focussed on a strong showing at Emirates Golf Club. It’s clear that she’s had time to reset and refresh her mind-set after last year’s disappointment, and whatever happens this week, you can be sure the teenager will be playing with a smile on her face in front of the home crowds.

But how big could that smile grow if she were to win?

“We’re not going in there with any expectation of winning, but it would be insane if I did!” she beams. “It would show what my potential is, and show that I’ve improved both mentally and physically. It’s obviously not something you can guarantee but if it did happen I would definitely be very happy.

“I’ve set myself some little targets, but they’re in my head and not for anyone else! I’m trying to keep level-headed, just do the best with whatever scenario I’m in.”