Golf is a fair-weather sport, and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is a fair-weather playground for aesthetes, tourists, prom kids and young lovers. So you'd think the sun might have beamed a bit for a preview of the new artist-designed mini-golf course that Walker Art Center opened Thursday to celebrate the garden's 25th anniversary.

But no. A cloud of North Shore drizzle blanketed the 15 holes when a gaggle of mini-golf enthusiasts, University of Minnesota students and a couple of critics set out to test-drive the course, nestled under the trees near the garden's conservatory.

"All the holes have to be able to drain water," said project manager Scott Stulen as the test team squished across the soggy lawn to the first hole, a Pop caprice consisting of a gigantic yellow watering can through which a well-placed ball dropped onto a miniature lawn sprouting 4-foot daisies. Designer Robin Schwartzman, who was testing the course with her partner Tom Loftus, got extra points for wearing a matching daisy-decorated sweater and shoes.

Five years have passed since Walker last hosted mini-golf, and artists responded to the pent-up demand with gusto. Sixty proposals arrived from teams of Minnesota artists, architects and designers, of which 15 were picked for development. Each team got $3,500 to develop and build a single hole. Naturally, the designs had to be artful and function for golf, but they also have to survive play by an expected 50,000 golfers and withstand Minnesota's capricious summer weather.

Art-savvy players will find sculpture concepts echoed in this year's design, which is, technically, divided into two different courses. Each has seven unique holes and they share an eighth. Aaron Dysart's clever "Rock! Garden" hole is a tip of the hat to a new Jim Hodges rock sculpture next to the Walker. As a bonus, Dysart's colorful rocks conceal a snare drum, a cymbal and a xylophone that clang merrily when hit by a golf ball.

"Be a Sculpture!" by the Carpenter-Donovan family may look like a simple, minimalist floor sculpture — a big rectangle of Astroturf with gravel footprints — but it turns into a tricky and very fun hole when other golfers position themselves on the footprints to muddle their partners' play.

"Holey Lighted," by Jeffrey Pauling and Tyler Whitehead, is an awesome bit of sculpture, a 10-feet-tall perforated canopy of plasma-cut steel arching over an ankle-high landscape of steel mountains through which players must putt their balls. And fans of the phallic rock sculptures of Minneapolis sculptor Zoran Mojsilov will be amused by the tower of rocks in the "Zen Rock (the) Garden" hole, which is an oasis of sand and rocks.

Fun and (other) games

Other games come into play, too. "Le Bagatelle de Bagatelle," by Karl Unnasch of Pilot Mound, Minn., a little burg south of Rochester, is essentially an overgrown pinball machine cleverly designed to look like a French chateau and formal garden. Its golf-ball topiaries are adorable obstacles, but there's not much for a golfer to do because the ball is controlled by gravity, not skill.

In a riff on croquet, one hole lets players rearrange panels to block balls and move the hole itself. There's a cute foosball game played with golf-ball-kicking garden gnomes that should be a hit with kids. But the weight of the cumbersome "Tilt-A-Putt" hole — a huge mirrored platform that has to be tipped to roll balls into holes — will stymie kids and some adults.

The U of M art students, who designed two holes, really put their hearts — and a lot of research — into the game. Playing with scale, they house one of their holes in a walk-in geodesic dome where balls bounce through a miniature model of the Sculpture Garden, complete with a dollhouse-sized Walker Art Center. Golf is only an afterthought in their second piece, which is a room-sized 3-D optical illusion; its distorted checkerboard floor and empty picture frames trick viewers into "seeing" people in the room as much taller or shorter than they are.

"Mostly it's a photo op, but the slanted floor does make the ball roll around," said Elena Lavorato, a sculpture and journalism student who helped design and build the room.

There are some head-scratchers, though: a post-apocalyptic landscape of melted trash bags from which balls drop onto a sandy delta; an unfinished ant farm hole (no ants will be harmed) and a strange riff on the famed Augusta National course that was designed by running the topography of the Georgia course through a CAD program and overlaying it onto an astroturf-and-plywood base studded with 18 drains, the latter alluding to the plumbing fixations of sculptor Robert Gober. Way too meta.

As a general observation, the course will appeal to the playful types interested in an outing and puzzling through the art. The holes, while diverse, occasionally will appeal to the serious putt-putter. Mostly, though, it's an excuse for a fun walk in the park.