Sunlight danced merrily through multihued portholes, dappling the walls of the overturned Chris-Craft Roamer and blurring the task at hand. It's rough trying to execute an exceedingly difficult putt through the constantly shifting focus of other people's recycled bifocals.

It's the sheer ethereal beauty -- so pixilated that one can almost hear Gregorian chants, or at least Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," wafting about the hull -- that makes playing the seventh hole at Big Stone Mini Golf so distracting. Dubbed "Holey Ship" for its cathedral-like ambience, No. 7 is the newest addition to this Minnetrista mini-golf course concocted by local artist Bruce Stillman.

"I've always liked doing landscape sculpture things, wild stuff," Stillman said. "I'm always asking myself how you can do truly functional art. Somehow it came to me to apply the recreation of mini-golf with the sculptures."

So in 2003, Stillman and some fellow artists built a 12-hole miniature-golf course on some land he owns about halfway between Mound and St. Bonifacius. Augmenting his own works -- largely the kind of stainless-steel sculptures that Stillman has been making for 30 years, fetching as much as $50,000 -- are some striking bronze sculptures by Heidi Hoy, including a few nudes that are just abstract enough to keep this all-ages attraction from entering PG-13 territory.

Virtually everything is a work of art, from the slate table with two checkerboards and pumpkin- and dragonfly-shaped benches (kids can perch on the wings) to the steps made of wood, metal, concrete or brick and even the handicapped-parking sign.

On the course itself, odd angles and slopes abound, and the artistic elements might be components, conduits or the hole design itself. There are fossilized tree trunks, a gargantuan metal bowl producing seemingly endless rolls, a pinball-like steel downslope.

Artistic mini-golf courses are not new; the Walker Art Center has operated an artsy mini-golf course the last several summers. The first U.S. course -- built at Pinehurst, N.C., in 1916 -- was designed after the gardens of the Louvre. Actress Mary Pickford opened a Max Ernst-inspired course in Los Angeles.

Steven Hix, executive director of the Fort Worth-based Miniature Golf Association United States, estimates that there are 7,500 mini-golf courses in the nation, down from more than 50,000 in midcentury America. There are only a handful of courses in the Twin Cities area, down from 15 in the early 1990s and nearly 100 in 1960.

With Putt-Putt courses no longer plastered throughout the land, and video golf on the rise, a more visual approach would seem to fit this sport to a tee.

Strokes of genius

The objets d'golf looming about are not the kind of "gallery" one usually finds at a golf course, and Stillman's windmill would hardly fit in a Norman Rockwell painting. But Big Stone exudes the kind of whimsy and, well, wholesomeness that has made miniature golf a big ol' slice of pure Americana for almost a century.

The bucolic setting doesn't hurt. Getting there means a long, lovely drive along Lake Minnetonka, and then suddenly into some seriously rural landscape. Bikers and hikers will be able to get there via the soon-to-open Dakota Line bike path from Wayzata to St. Bonifacius, which runs right alongside the course.

Abutting Gale Woods to the west, Stillman's 17-acre plot houses goats, miniature horses, chickens galore, and the more than occasional egret or heron lounging in the pond just north of the course. On a recent Saturday, Tonka Bay's Tara Bauman, admonishing her daughter Maia, might have been the first person in mini-golf-course history to utter these words: "Don't shriek at the goats; the goats don't like it."

Aside from the petting zones, there are two cool picnic areas on either side of the pond: another old boat ("Kids love going into the cabin and getting behind the steering wheel," Stillman said) and a Stonehenge-like space (mini, of course) with a fire pit.

"It's just really peaceful out here, really artistic, very unique," said Elaine Fiske of Minnetrista, who was watching granddaughters Annelie and Madeline Scolardi of Chanhassen play.

"I like the little golf-course things," said Madeline, "and the boat, and the fish."

Some good-sized koi live in a pond between two holes, and there's fauna as well, scores of sunflowers shooting up along and around the serpentine 10th hole, a legitimate par 4. But the inanimate objects, the greens' friezes, are the stars of this show.

Many holes require major reconnaissance to discern the best approach, and sometimes it's best to just hit the ball and then see how the hole plays out. The final hole ends with the ball on a large concrete slab with running water, the current inching the ball along a maze-like "stream" to the hole, a good 2 minutes after it first splashes down -- and a fitting finale for its creator.

"My sculptures are always slow-moving pieces that are kinda hypnotic," said Stillman, 50. "I always try to have nature do its work."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643