Once upon a time,

in an California desert,

two young athletes,

primed to be the

best of a generation,

met under bright lights …

It was Aug. 28, 2000, when Tiger Woods, 24, and Sergio Garcia, 20, went head-to-head in the Battle at Bighorn, a primetime, match play golf event under the lights at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, California.

It was the second prime-time golf event of its kind — Woods and David Duval had played the previous year — but it’s the one fans remember. It drew the largest ratings of any event in the seven-year run that would later feature Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Ernie Els, John Daly and Vijay Singh in a variety of formats.

It was billed as a battle between a pair of young golfers about to embark on a career-long battle, with Garcia cast as the new, great rival for Woods. They would be dueling for years, at major after major, the hype said.

Obviously, that never happened.

Yes, Garcia would finish in the top 10 in majors 14 times from 2001 through 2009. But he also missed the cut 11 times in that span, never earned a victory and failed to reach the heights many had predicted for him.

Looking back, all of those expectations heaped on Garcia before his 21st birthday were utterly unfair.

At the time of the Battle at Bighorn, Woods had already finished each of the previous two seasons ranked No. 1 in the world. He had won three consecutive majors, and would add the Masters in spring 2001 to complete his “Tiger Slam.”

Meanwhile, Garcia, who had finished second to Woods in the 1999 PGA Championship, had yet to crack the top 10 in the rankings. He placed 34th or worse in every major in 2000.

The expectations were too much, for anyone.

As we learned over the next decade, no one was a true rival for Woods. Yes, there were names that popped up and gave him a battle from time to time, Mickelson, Els and Singh among them, but no one truly stood against him. No one could be expected to, not against a man who won 14 majors and looked as if he would break the Nicklaus record of 18 before infidelity and injuries derailed him.

Still, it was hard to believe that a golfer who showed Garcia’s ability at such a young age had never reached the mountaintop in a major.

So it was easy to root for him Sunday as he made his way around Amen Corner in contention. Many hearts dropped when he missed his potential Masters-winning putt on the 18th hole, leaving him in a tie with Justin Rose. But those same hearts were lifted again when Garcia played the first playoff hole beautifully, driving down the fairway and leaving his approach about 12 feet from the pin. His birdie putt looked as if it might scoot just left of the hole, but the ball caught the edge, rolled around and fell.

Garcia dropped into a squatting position, pumping both fists, before rising again as the crowd cheered.

Twenty-one years after he played his first major, 17 since that well-watched evening duel in the desert, Garcia had finally reached golf’s pinnacle.

Yes, he never climbed to the heights many experts once thought he would. But he was too talented a golfer to have gone so long without a major victory.

His name belonged on that list. The green jacket was a natural fit around his shoulders.

That’s what made Sunday evening’s result so special.

Garcia finally got his moment, alone, in the spotlight.