Stewart Cink's putt shifted Ryder Cup

NEWPORT, Wales -- The scene surrounding the 17th green at Celtic Manor could be likened to European soccer lite, an explosion fitting of a game-winning goal with the smell of victory in the air.

The ground shook and the noise washed across the green as Graeme McDowell's shot came to rest just 6 feet from the hole.

Americans Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar had just pulled even on the previous hole, but now the Europeans were in perfect position to take the lead and tie the Ryder Cup.

That's when Cink's choice as one of Corey Pavin's captain's picks looked very, very good.

Playing in his fifth Ryder Cup, and with the world seemingly closing in around him, Cink stalked his 30-foot birdie putt with the calm and cool of a man playing a leisurely weekend match.

And then he pulled off what is so far the shot of the Ryder Cup, draining the birdie putt that proved to be huge when Rory McIlroy missed his 6-footer to tie.

Instead of the Europeans going 1-up, they went 1-down.

And when McIlroy couldn't execute a simple wedge shot on the 18th, the United States had an important victory that gave them a 6-4 advantage heading into the third session that would not be completed Saturday.

You could say that the stunning turn of events is what epitomizes match play.

Standing off the 18th green afterward, Cink went farther with his perspective.

"It epitomizes the Ryder Cup," said the 2009 British Open champion. "The level of play at this thing is almost like an out-of-body experience sometimes. When you look back and think about some of the shots you pull off under intense pressure, it's amazing."

European captain Colin Montgomerie agreed.

"The way that Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar finished that particular [match] against Rory and Graeme, all credit to them for finishing the way they did, and that's all about Ryder Cup," Montgomerie said. "So to finish that way was fantastic, and to get that point for America, and of course that would have tied the [match], making it 6-4, as it is now.

How did Cink do it?

By drifting back to the 18th green at Turnberry, where last summer nobody was giving him a thought on his way to snatching the Claret Jug away from Tom Watson. It was there that Cink made a 15-footer for birdie on the closing hole that proved to be huge, as it put him in a playoff he won.

"I drew a lot from Turnberry on the 18th hole," Cink said. "Me and my caddie [Frank Williams] even spoke about it before I pulled the putter back there.

"I wanted to be sure I stayed in the routine and not the result of the putt. I stuck to it really well, relied on it like I always do. And it just tracked right in the middle of the hole."

And of course, the crowd went eerily silent, save for the smattering of Americans among the masses.

"The reaction on the green after we made birdie there just says it all," Cink said.

"That putt on 17," Kuchar said, "I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Now, all of a sudden, McIlroy went from having a putt to win to having one to tie. And he missed the 6-footer. And then at the par-5 18th, needing a good wedge shot to give him and partner McDowell any chance to tie, he dumped it in a bunker, leading to a 1-up U.S. victory that gave the Americans a 6-4 advantage.

"I had a feeling our match was very important today," Cink said. "I saw a lot of back and forth on the board; not many matches were more than 1-up either way. When you're in the last match anyway you always want to come through with the last point. So we really wanted to get that, and I'm tickled we were able to come through. Those guys are tough to play."

And for those following, it was tough to watch.

Being a fan is one thing. Being a friend or family member is quite another.

Lisa Cink has been through this pressure cooker several times now, and experience doesn't make the process any easier, although she was sure enjoying the sounds of silence after her husband's putt found the bottom of the cup.

"What you learn is just how thankful you are to be a part of this," she said.

Also tagging along were Kuchar's parents, Peter and Meg. You might recall Peter being on the bag when Matt played as an amateur at the Masters and U.S. Open in 1998.

Now their son was on an even bigger stage.

"It's been great," Peter Kuchar said. "I can't wait to go another 18."

"He is having a great time," Meg Kuchar said of her 32-year-old son, who is a rookie on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. "He's having the time of a lifetime. He had high expectations and they are living up to it and more so. It's just so incredible. You think of all the great players who have done this, all the incredible things that have happened. He is loving this."

How could you not?

The spectacle that is the Ryder Cup is truly something to behold, something that is difficult to convey or grasp until it is experienced.

Certainly Kuchar has watched the event over the years and talked to those who played in it. He's won tournaments and competed in major championships, including those highlight-reel experiences as an amateur.

But this …

"Way bigger," Kuchar said. "When we got down on the low holes and you look up to the 17th hole, 16th hole and there is just a sea of people.

"And the intensity that the people bring, it is just outstanding. It's so much fun to be inside the ropes and hitting shots. And sometimes you pull off miraculous shots. It's such a great feeling."

The duo birdied all four par-3s during their match and somehow turned a bleak situation into a positive one.

And when things started looking ominous in the third session (4 four-ball matches, 2 foursomes matches) for the Americans, that point the Cink-Kuchar duo earned looked even bigger.

"It's big to have the lead anytime, but it's also a long time from being over," Cink said. "I could sense how important our match was going to be."

His words proved to be prophetic, as the momentum had seemingly shifted to the Europeans as the third session unfolded into the early evening Saturday.

Of course, one shot, one putt has a way of changing everything … as we are likely to see in Sunday's singles.

"The Ryder Cup brings out the most energy in golf," Cink said. "And we're all riding the wave."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.