Over time, knowing which set of tees to use will become self-evident. If you are struggling from one set of tees - unable to reach par-3 holes from the tee, or unable to reach par-4 holes in two shots - then move up to an easier (shorter) set of tees.
But as a beginner, you probably don't yet have a good grasp on your game and how far you hit your clubs.
One thing to keep in mind is that many amateur golfers (especially men) try to play from tees that are too long. It's not uncommon to see a group of guys on a teeing ground hitting from the championship tees, only to hit weak slices into the woods. Don't be one of these people - there's no shame in playing from a forward set of tees if that is appropriate for your game. And golfers who play from tees that are too long for their games are only slowing down the pace of play.
At a course with three sets of tees, the guidelines for choosing the correct set are pretty easy: the championship tees (back tees) are for low-handicap men. The middle tees are for middle to high handicap men, low-handicap or long-hitting women, and low-handicap or long-hitting senior men. The forward tees are for middle or high handicap women and seniors, and beginners of all stripes.
At courses whose tee boxes contain more than three sets of tees, it gets a little more complicated. But we can sort it out by considering the yardages that the professionals play from.
On the PGA Tour, the typical course yardage these days is around 7,100 yards. On the LPGA Tour, typical course yardages are 6,100 to 6,500 yards. On the Champions Tour, typical course yardages are 6,400 to 6,800 yards.
If you are a low-handicapper (and as a beginner, you certainly will not be), then feel free to play from the set of tees that mimics the yardages on the pro tours (which will be the back tees for men).
Low-handicap women and seniors might choose the set of tees whose yardage is 250-500 yards less than the averages of the LPGA and Champions tours, respectively.
Mid-handicappers might choose the set of tees whose yardage is around 500-1,000 yards less than the pro tour that represents their gender or age.
High-handicappers should consider the set of tees whose yardage is 1,000 to 1,500 yards less than the pros play.
And beginners? Unless you know that you can hit the ball a good distance with at least a little bit of accuracy and consistency, then start from the forward tees. After a round or two from the forward tees, you'll have a pretty good idea (based on your score and your frustration level!) if you should move back to a tougher set of tees.
And always remember that first rule of thumb we mentioned: If you are unable to reach the par-3 holes in one shot (we're talking distance, not actually getting your ball on the green), or unable to reach the par-4 holes in two shots from the set of tees you are playing, it's a good sign that you need to move up to a shorter set of tees.
Here's another general guideline for choosing the distance at which to play a golf course: Take your average 5-iron distance (be honest!), multiply by 36, and choose the tees that most closely match that yardage. Example: You hit your 5-iron 150 yards. So 150 times 36 equals 5,400. Choose the tees closest to 5,400 yards in length.
PGA of America/USGA Recommendations
In 2011, the PGA of America and USGA issued a set of recommendations designed to encourage golfers to play from appropriate yardages. These guidelines are based on golfers' average driving distance. So find your driving distance, then see what yardage these two organizations recommend.
Avg. drive - Recommended Tees
300 yards - 7,150-7,400 yards
275 yards - 6,700-6,900 yards
250 yards - 6,200-6,400 yards
225 yards - 5,800-6,000 yards
200 yards - 5,200-5,400 yards
175 yards - 4,400-4,600 yards
150 yards - 3,500-3,700 yards
125 yards - 2,800-3,000 yards
100 yards - 2,100-2,300 yards